District enhances reading instruction by acting early

When young adults can't read, it is tragic. It is also complex: There is no easy remedy for illiteracy, no single cause of failure. When children do well, it is because of high-quality schools and strong partnerships with the families and communities they serve. When students fail, it is because links in the chain are broken.

In Ridge Smith's case, there is no doubt that the district could have done more to help him. By the time I became superintendent two years ago, he was a chronically truant 15-year old with a serious learning disability. At that point, we struggled to help Ridge largely because we couldn't find him, and no "Individualized Education Program" or intervention program can help an empty seat in a classroom.

But as most educators and parents know, it is the early years that are crucial, laying the foundation for the years that follow. Ridge's elementary school experience is instructive, illustrating just how different things are today from when he came through the system.

In 1996, Ridge Smith first arrived at our kindergarten door with unintelligible language skills. While he was placed in a program to address his "speech problem," his learning disability was not diagnosed until 2000—after he had already repeated first grade. Records show that he never attended a Child Development program, so his "readiness to learn" was already delayed when he started school.

Unfortunately, a decade ago, Ridge was in a school system where specialized instruction was offered only after children failed. In my view, he lost three of the most valuable reading development years in kindergarten, first, and second grade, where I imagine his teachers used "whole class instruction." Those who could not keep pace were doomed to fall behind or repeat the grade.

Today, the "waiting to fail" model is a thing of the past. When it comes to specialized instruction, CCSD is proactive, not reactive. We screen children long before they enter kindergarten.

Today, Ridge Smith would be enrolled in one of our 3-year-old programs to help his language problems. Starting in kindergarten and throughout his entire school career in Charleston, Ridge would be taught our core ("coherent") curriculum that is built on state standards. This recently implemented curriculum outlines what teachers teach in every subject and at every grade, so that regardless the school—urban, rural or suburban—all students get the rigorous content they need to achieve.

We have also implemented checkpoints (or "benchmark testing") three times per year to track every student's progress. The test we use is called the Measures of Academic Progress, or "MAP." Using data relentlessly to assess and inform instruction enables us to intervene immediately when students have difficulty. This continuum of teaching, assessing, and re-teaching is good for all students — and absolutely essential for a student with learning challenges.

Under our newly implemented "Response to Intervention" model, we keep records on whether a child is making gains and modify our instructional methods to meet each child's needs.

For a student like Ridge Smith, we would have done "progress monitoring" every other week at a minimum. Years ago, schools typically tested one or two times per year. We now have much more sophisticated tools to assess learning needs, and we record more specific data on each learner.

When the individual classroom teacher hits a roadblock with a student, he/she can refer the case to the "Core Team." All of our schools now operate core teams of educators, often including psychologists. They study each case and prescribe an individually tailored strategy to remedy the child's obstacles to learning.

Taken together, the district is dramatically different — more evolved, data-driven and results-oriented — than it was 12 years ago. Our system of early diagnostics, high-quality teaching, services and supports is a roadmap designed to keep students on track for success in school and beyond. This is one reason why our elementary, middle and high school achievement levels are higher than they have ever been.

What is tragic about the case of Ridge Smith is that in elementary school he was not far below his peers; with an IQ of 95, he certainly has the capacity to learn how to read.

Unfortunately, he came to school with literacy challenges and fell into a cycle of failure that was not corrected. His teachers took notice, and they cared deeply. One teacher asked a family member to help tutor Ridge after school. Another teacher — when she couldn't get Ridge's mom on the phone — personally drove to his mother's work so that they could discuss Ridge's needs. Conversations about Ridge abound with these examples.

But caring teachers can't do it alone. It takes systemic change. The literacy supports we have in place today — especially early identification and intervention programs — were not yet developed. Today's teacher-quality requirements, high-standards curricula, and research-based assessments create safety nets for all children, particularly those like Ridge.

The system has clearly improved, but the enduring and positive impact of these changes relies on all of us — school leaders, parents, and community members — working together.

We need strong family involvement. President Obama recently said of education reform, "In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child."

The president is right. Literacy is at the heart of all learning, and as a community, we must continue to reform our public education system — that greatest of equalizers — so that every student, regardless of background, learns to read and write proficiently. This is what motivates me every day. I will continue to work to ensure that stories like these turn into diminishing, sad commentaries on days gone by.

Dr. Nancy J. McGinley is superintendent of the Charleston County School District.