Pre-kindergarten programs focusing on literacy
Charleston County students' reading problems begin at a young age.
More than half of this year's third-graders in more than half of the district's elementary schools read at a first-grade level or worse.
Many of these students are doomed, failing to improve as they get older. Nearly 20 percent of the county's freshmen read at or below a fourth-grade level.
Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley asked her staff to analyze students' test scores to determine how many third-graders were two or more years behind. She did that because third-grade reading levels are a strong predictor of students' success in high school and beyond, she said.
The school district began translating its students' test results into grade-level equivalents after questioned by the newspaper, and McGinley said those conversions make achievement gaps more apparent.
She's extremely concerned about the 23 elementary schools with third-graders who are falling
behind, and she's meeting with the district's chief academic officer to find out what factors are affecting students' reading.
McGinley thinks many of these students' troubles begin before they enter school. When children grow up in an environment that doesn't support their language development, they aren't going to be ready for kindergarten, she said. A literacy-rich pre-kindergarten program can teach students the skills and information they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn, she said.
Education no longer can be thought of as spanning only from kindergarten through 12th grade, she said.
"We must think about it as pre-kindergarten through 12th grade with pre-kindergarten being of equal importance to elementary, middle and high school," she said.
The superintendent and school board have taken a number of steps within the past few months to beef up its early childhood education programs. McGinley elevated the position of early childhood education director and put it on the same level as an associate superintendent. The district hired Lerah Lee, former principal of St. James-Santee Elementary School, to serve in that new role.
The school board agreed to direct more money to pre-kindergarten classes, enabling 446 more 4-year-olds to be served this year. A total of 1,700 students are in pre-kindergarten classes, up from 928 students four years ago. It's an improvement, but 257 students still are on a waiting list.
Schools are using a new early childhood education curriculum that has a strong literacy component, and it will ensure that students across the district are learning the same skills.
"We realize we need to start earlier to really make sure there aren't any preparation gaps for minority and low-income children," Lee said. "We know that if we don't start earlier, we are not going to have the outcomes that we want for all children."
The move to a new curriculum is one of the more significant changes that's been made, and the board agreed to invest $186,000 in it.
It marks the first time in years that all pre-kindergarten classes will have the same, standardized curriculum. Teachers are being trained to use it, and that should enable them to better address students' problems, Lee said.
In the classroom
At Dunston Primary School earlier this week, Lauren Raffaelle Sayle's pre-kindergartners threw their hands in the air and called out the letter "C", touched their shoulders and made its "cuh" sound, then tapped the ground while singing "cat."
The 4-year-olds seemed to relish the movement and song for each letter of the alphabet as they learned fundamentals of reading. Sayle wants her students to know their letters and sounds by the end of the school year, but equally as important is that her children develop a love for reading.
Sayle, animated and energetic, led the students through a series of activities intended to develop their early literacy skills. Students sang the alphabet while one student pointed out the letters, they danced and sang while practicing letter sounds, they listened to a book and chimed in with hand motions and they scribbled letters in shaving cream on table tops.
"Everything we try to do is literacy based," said Sayle, who is in her ninth year of teaching.
Sayle has used some of the best practices from the district's new program, Creative Curriculum, for the past few years. She said receiving training to use it, as well as additional materials, will benefit hers and other pre-kindergarten students.
"I think it is going to make (the child development program) better as a whole districtwide," she said.
McGinley doesn't expect to see a significant increase in funding in the near future, so her goal for the next three years is to offer universal pre-kindergarten for all high-poverty students. Children who aren't getting help at home will need extra support in school, and that's where the district needs to spend any additional dollars, she said.
Still, increasing and improving the number of pre- kindergarten classes isn't enough for those students, McGinley said.
"It's keeping the support in place (over time) that that child may not be getting," she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5546.