Ridge Smith hunches over a newspaper article, harnesses his concentration and focuses on the words.
He wants to prove how well he can read.
His wide, luminous smile disappears. His mouth slowly forms the words he knows. He stops again and again, tripped up on words such as "awkward," "August" and "local."
Seconds stretch into minutes.
Ridge is 16. He spent more than 10 years in some of Charleston County's inner-city, low-performing schools. His teachers and principals learned early on that he had an average IQ and could learn to read. Many of them latched on to the quiet, well-behaved and kind child, but no one taught him to read well.
Ridge reads at a third-grade level.
He is among thousands of Lowcountry students who make their way through schools without ever learning to read beyond an elementary-grade level.
The struggle begins
Ridge's decade-long battle with reading began when his mother, Daphney, enrolled him in kindergarten at Mitchell Elementary School in the fall of 1996.
Ridge was 5 years old and living in poverty. But he was eager to learn. He had difficulty understanding vocabulary and concepts, and his school records describe his speech as "unintelligible" because he didn't articulate certain sounds.
His problems made him eligible for special education services in speech/language, and he participated in speech therapy sessions for more than an hour each week.
The additional attention didn't improve Ridge's school performance, and as a first-grader, he still couldn't master basic skills, such as memorizing his phone number and birthday, identifying opposites and speaking in complete sentences.
School officials decided Ridge would repeat first grade.
More warning signs
Ridge's academic troubles persisted into second grade. He struggled with following directions and recognizing simple words such as "hey," "who" and "me."
When Ridge stopped attempting to do his work, his teacher sat him in the front of the class. That didn't help. When Ridge worked with a peer tutor, he let the other student do his work. When his teacher tried to talk to Daphney, she didn't show up for scheduled conferences.
At home, Daphney tried to teach Ridge and his brothers what she could when she had time, but time was scarce. She worked full-time, sometimes two jobs, cleaning hotel rooms to pay for food and clothes for her three children and her mother, Rosalee. Daphney's children's father wasn't a part of their lives.
Ridge performed at such a low level that his teacher referred him to psychologists for an evaluation to find out whether he had a learning disability.
IQ tests showed that Ridge fell within the average range. But they revealed a significant discrepancy between his ability to read and his actual reading skills. He had the capability to learn to read, despite his poor classroom performance. He scored on a second-grade level in math and a year behind in reading and writing.
Ridge qualified for special education services because of his learning disability in basic reading, reading comprehension and written expression.
Ridge was promoted to third grade.
Research points to third-grade reading scores as a good predictor of students' later academic success. The cliche among educators is "students learn to read through third grade, and they read to learn after that." Students who can't read well by the end of third grade often struggle later to understand the content in their science, English, math and social studies classes.
Ridge's third-grade teacher was Melissa Black, a dark-haired woman with a passion for her job. She remembers the concern she felt when Ridge entered her class. She worried about his reading skills.
Ridge had what school officials called an academic plan. Students receive those when they have an academic weakness at the end of the previous school year that officials believe they can overcome and go on to learn what's required in the next grade.
Ridge couldn't sound out unknown words or draw conclusions about what he read. Black felt drawn to Ridge, one of the quiet students in her room. She saw a kind, mature child and went out of her way to make him feel a part of the class.
She talked to everyone she could — the guidance counselor, his special education teacher and his Reading Recovery teacher — about ways to help Ridge, and she exhausted every support and program available. She and her husband voluntarily tutored Ridge after school, something they hadn't done with any other student.
She doesn't know what else she could've done to reach him. He progressed academically, but she wasn't happy with where he was at the end of the school year. Ridge, a third-grader, took the state's English test for second-graders because of his reading difficulty but still scored below even that grade level.
Black dissolved into tears as she talked about Ridge: "We do as much as we can," she said.
Ridge's reading problem meant a team of school officials and his mother would meet to decide whether it was in his best interest to move to the next grade. One of their options was administrative promotion, which means placing a student in the next grade even if he hasn't met the academic criteria necessary to be there. Another option was retention, but research shows elementary-age students who are held back are up to 11 times more likely to drop out of high school.
Ridge was administratively promoted to fourth grade.
Ridge's fourth-grade teacher, David Wingard, remembers the same sweet child who still haunts Black. Another student in Wingard's class would antagonize Ridge, but Ridge would handle the situation maturely, refusing to engage him or respond with aggression. He described Ridge as pleasant, cooperative and charming. He was a great kid with a positive attitude who in many ways was a model for how to act.
But Ridge's academic performance wasn't what it should be, and he again had an academic plan. His difficulty reading opened the door to just about every service the school offered — involvement in the intensive one-on-one Reading Recovery program that few kids qualify for, extra help during his regular classes and one-on-one tutoring throughout the school day.
Like Black, Wingard's commitment to Ridge extended beyond the school day. He got Ridge involved in a sailing program and in after-school sports.
More than halfway through Ridge's fourth-grade year, his reading skills ranked at an early third-grade level and his comprehension skills ranked at a late third-grade level. He could identify nouns but had trouble with verbs, adjectives, verb tense and subject-verb agreement. Wingard remembers Ridge reading fluently but struggling with comprehension.
He thought Ridge's academic goals were attainable. Ridge always did what Wingard expected of him, and Wingard thought Ridge had a good, successful year.
Ridge was administratively promoted to fifth grade.
Rosalee, Ridge's grandmother, was the glue that held the family together, the tough one who cooked, cleaned, stayed on top of bills and took care of the kids while Daphney worked. Ridge called her "Momma."
She died of breast cancer in August 2002, the fall that Ridge entered fifth grade. Her death hit the family hard.
Paige Hilton, a family nurse practitioner and mother of two who lives in Mount Pleasant, began to notice changes in Ridge's family in the years after Rosalee's death. Hilton had gotten to know the family by volunteering as a tutor for Rosalee, who had dropped out of school in seventh grade but wanted to read well enough to understand the Bible and the newspaper.
Ridge no longer came out of his room when Hilton visited, and he wasn't at home when she called at 10 p.m. When she stopped by on the weekends or after work, he wasn't home or, if he was, he didn't show interest in spending time with her. Hilton visited less frequently.
She worried about Ridge but couldn't find out what really was going on. She never saw Ridge read or do homework. When she asked about his grades, Daphney told her they were fine. When she asked about report cards, Daphney told her he hadn't brought them home.
Hilton thought about Daphney's daily life and the obstacles that come with a low-paying job and the lack of a car. Routine chores such as going to the grocery store and paying bills could become complicated, time-consuming puzzles that Daphney alone could solve. Daphney often seemed detached. Hilton suspected it was just her way of surviving.
Daphney's first son, Carlton, is nearly 10 years older than Ridge, but he somehow found a better life. Carlton has a car, a job, two children and a long-term relationship. He doesn't know why his life turned out differently.
Hilton doesn't know why Carlton has done so comparatively well, either, but the only major difference she sees is Rosalee. Rosalee saw him grow into an adult, but she died before Ridge finished elementary school.
That's the same time Ridge remembers school becoming more difficult. He had academic plans in fifth and sixth grades.
Ridge was promoted to seventh grade.
A new school
Ridge left Mitchell Elementary School for Rivers Middle School as a seventh-grader in the fall of 2004. The middle school couldn't have been more different. He saw fights every day, and classmates brought guns to school.
"It felt like being in the streets," Ridge recalls. "That school was wild."
Rivers Middle School had become synonymous with academic failure. The school had earned the worst possible rating on the state report card every year, and only 2 percent of its students scored proficient or advanced for their grade on state English and math tests. Former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson described the school as losing generations of children.
For Ridge, skipping school became a habit. He would slip out a side door, jump the fence and head to a friend's house. The school referred him to truancy court after he missed 15 days of school.
He didn't have much classwork, and what little he had seemed as easy as what he'd had in elementary school. He finished most of his lessons by copying answers from a textbook rather than thinking analytically, and he often goofed off in class to entertain his friends and distract attention from his difficulty reading. His misbehavior led to at least one suspension.
The ability to read well is especially important during middle school because teachers focus on information and concepts. Students who can't read well may end up trying to understand the words rather than the information they convey. Ridge struggled with comprehension, decoding words, writing and summarizing.
School officials believed Ridge made progress although he still read below grade level. Test results showed him scoring near the bottom of students nationally for reading and language use.
He failed his classes that year, and school officials recommended that he repeat seventh grade. His seventh-grade report card shows him being held back, and the school principal sent his mother a letter that said he would be held back.
But Ridge was promoted to the eighth grade.
Rivers Middle School was such an academic and discipline failure that the school board decided to take drastic action: It closed the school, and moved Rivers Middle School students to the Burke High School campus in the fall of 2005. Ridge was part of the eighth-grade class involved in the change.
The former superintendent instituted the A-Plus program at the middle school to boost students' achievement. Problems plagued the initiative: The building was too small, its classes were too large, students ruled the hallways and one-fourth of the teaching staff left before the end of the first semester.
Ridge no longer needed his friends to feel comfortable about skipping school. He routinely cut classes to go home and play video games. He missed 32 days of school.
He rarely did his classwork because he couldn't. He remembers that his science class used the biggest words, and it made him feel lost and angry.
Ridge's eighth-grade homeroom and science teacher, Elizabeth Mullen, felt that Ridge seemed unsure about his abilities, and that affected the amount of effort he put into her class. If he didn't feel comfortable with the lesson or couldn't understand it immediately, he would shut down and quit. He would put his head on his desk or refuse to respond.
When Mullen could make Ridge feel good, he would try to do the work. She bolstered his confidence by helping him understand assignments and praising him for correct answers. But if his class work required higher-level thinking, or if it took him a long time to complete, he would grow frustrated and quit.
Mullen remembers Ridge had a problem reading. He appeared self-conscious and uncertain as he read aloud in class, and he didn't understand what he read. Still, he didn't stand out from the class. Most of her students read on the same level as Ridge.
A special education teacher spent time in Mullen's class to help students understand lessons, and both teachers gave students as much one-on-one attention as possible.
Like Ridge, Mullen felt frustrated that year. So many of her students were so far behind where they needed to be.
She watched helpless as Ridge surrounded himself with troublemakers, students who misbehaved inside and outside of school. They refused to do their work and acted out in class. Four of Ridge's friends landed in jail at some point that year.
His friends' behavior rubbed off on him, and he occasionally tried to show off and be the bad kid. Police arrested him twice for fighting, and he accumulated more than a dozen suspensions. Still, Mullen didn't think Ridge's misbehavior fit with who he was; Ridge just wanted to be accepted.
School administrators told Mullen that her special education students, including Ridge, would pass at the end of the year, regardless of whether they passed their classes. They told her they feared backlash because some special education students hadn't received the services that federal law required.
Ridge was administratively promoted to ninth grade.
From bad to worse
If middle school felt to Ridge like being on the streets, Burke High School felt like jail.
Ridge didn't want to go to class. By the end of the first semester of his freshman year, Ridge had racked up 11 days of in-school and out-of-school suspension, and he missed more than 90 class periods.
He roamed the halls instead of enduring the discomfort that accompanied lessons he didn't understand. He refused to tuck in his shirt, disrupted class, slept during tests and disobeyed teachers.
"I felt like all the kids were smarter than me," Ridge said.
School officials held multiple conferences to discuss his excessive absences and failing grades, but Daphney and Ridge often didn't come. School leaders didn't link his misbehavior to his difficulty reading. They acknowledged that his reading problem prevented him from making the same progress as his classmates, but they felt his slow progress was because of his excessive absences.
They believed he could read independently and participate successfully in the curriculum, and they described Ridge as performing "at least" one grade below his peers.
Lisa Ahrens, his resource teacher, remembers Ridge's attendance being an issue. She wanted to encourage Daphney to be more involved with Ridge to help him be successful, and she had to work harder to track down Daphney than with any other parent. She documented eight instances in two months of trying unsuccessfully to reach her. When she finally made Daphney realize that she was only trying to help Ridge, she no longer had problems contacting her.
Ridge failed all of his classes. School records cited his attendance as the reason he didn't pass ninth grade.
Ridge wasn't promoted.
A second shot
Ridge returned to Burke High in the fall of 2007 as a second-year freshman. He didn't earn any credits from his first year in ninth grade.
He thought his teachers didn't want him in school and that they saw him as a teenager who would rather be in the streets selling drugs and getting into trouble.
Ridge skipped class every day. By the end of October, he had missed more than 150 classes. Two of his teachers wrote in reports in November that they had never met Ridge.
Police arrested Ridge for an in-school assault in late October. School officials again didn't link his misbehavior to his reading problem.
The school recommended suspending him for the remainder of the school year, and the downtown constituent school board approved the request. That marked the end of his high school education.
Less than two months later, police arrested Ridge on armed robbery charges, which were later reduced to attempted armed robbery. He spent nearly three months in jail. One of his bail conditions was that his family not stay in public housing. Daphney also wanted to put more distance between Ridge and trouble. They moved to a house in North Charleston.
That's when the nothingness for Ridge began. His life became hollow. He didn't have any plans, and he rarely left his house. He sat on his couch, day after day, doing nothing — bored.
He talked about earning his GED and finding a job. Other than working a month-long stint on a construction site, he didn't do either.
Fighting for Ridge
Pam Kusmider met Ridge in the fall of 2007 at his disciplinary hearing. She chaired the constituent school board that doled out his long-term suspension. She voted against the board majority.
It was the first time she'd believed a student when he said he wasn't involved in the fight. Ridge said he got caught in the middle of the brawl.
At Ridge's suspension hearing, Burke High School administrators talked about Ridge's academic failure and his chronic absenteeism. Kusmider picked up on something else.
She did something she'd never done before. She handed him a piece of paper and asked him to read it. When he couldn't read words such as "tardy," she told school officials that she wouldn't be going to class either if she couldn't read.
She didn't sleep that night.
She believed the school district had not taught Ridge the way he'd needed to be taught. Some kids need to be taught in a different way. She doesn't believe parent involvement is a factor. Students can't learn until they can read, and schools should be able to teach students how to read. The school district failed Ridge.
She filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, accusing the district of violating federal law in failing to provide Ridge with the services that his reading difficulty mandated during his suspension. Federal law mandates that students with special needs who receive long-term suspensions still must receive the educational services that their disability requires.
Kusmider fought on Ridge's behalf for nearly two months. The district offered to provide him extra instruction if he enrolled as a freshman at North Charleston High School, but Ridge didn't want to repeat freshman year for a third time.
The district offered him a spot in the adult education program at West Ashley High School with a special education teacher. The offer sounded good, but it would've required Ridge to use public transportation, which meant three hours of daily commuting and walking through unsafe areas at night. Kusmider refused to accept the offer on Ridge's behalf.
She asked whether the district could provide a resource teacher at North Charleston High School, which is close to where Ridge lives, so he could participate in the adult education program there. District officials said they didn't have a resource teacher at that site but later agreed to the arrangement.
Ridge enrolled in GED preparation classes at North Charleston High School.
Ridge is now 17. His girlfriend had his baby boy, Demontrai, last year, and the child turned a year old in April.
Demontrai stays with Ridge's girlfriend and her family. Ridge sometimes stays there but lives in North Charleston with Daphney.
Daphney only recently learned that Ridge hadn't learned to read while in school. She figured that if he couldn't read, the school system would not have passed him from grade to grade.
Ridge started taking the GED classes in January, and he attended about half of the 23 classes in the first session.
The second session began in March. Ridge did not re-enroll.
Failing our students
A CONTINUING SERIES: Over the next several months, The Post and Courier will run occasional stories focusing on reading difficulties in the Lowcountry, where one in seven adults is functionally illiterate.TODAY: Ridge Smith is an all-too- common product of the Charleston County schools. He reads on a third-grade level. How did this happen when school officials said he has average intelligence and could have been taught to read?MONDAY: Alice Birney Middle School Principal Carol Beckmann-Bartlett took a dramatic step this school year when she discovered that one out of every five students in her North Charleston school can't read well enough to learn their lessons: She canceled some classes for 120 students and placed them in basic reading sessions — second-grade level in some cases.
Ridge watches TV and hangs out at his mother's house in North Charleston after attending a morning class.×
Mitchell Elementary School×
Rivers Middle School×
Burke High School×
Ridge's mother moved to this house in North Charleston partly to get Ridge away from bad influences.×
Ridge Smith sits with his son, 1-year-old Demontrai, at his mothers home in North Charleston.×