Teaching assistant Mary Scott guides the two struggling first-graders through a reading exercise in which they identify simple words, capital letters and punctuation marks.
On the other side of the classroom, master teacher Alethia Jefferson listens to 11 students take turns reading aloud. Jefferson asks them questions about the story, and the students use their answers to complete a writing assignment.
Scott and Jefferson's students are in the same class in the same grade, but their achievement levels are vastly different. The first-graders paired with Scott are about a year behind, while those with Jefferson range from a half-year behind to on grade level.
First-grade classrooms typically don't have teaching assistants, but Jefferson relies on the extra help. Scott often works with the low achievers, enabling Jefferson to target students performing at higher levels.
"The need is so great," Jefferson said. "I really feel blessed to have someone come in and work with the children. It builds the children's self confidence, and my struggling readers depend on her."
Scott plays a critical role in Jefferson's classroom, and her presence there is made possible through a new partnership between Charleston County School District and the College of Charleston. The Literacy Intern Project aims to improve kindergarten and first-grade students' reading skills while staffing high-poverty schools with more minority teachers who have graduate degrees.
The school district made literacy its No. 1 priority this year after an analysis prompted by The Post and Courier showed nearly one out of five incoming high school freshmen in Charleston County reads at a fourth-grade level or worse. Its push to improve students' reading is extending beyond its classrooms and into local higher education institutions.
Through the Literacy Intern Project, the district covers most of the tuition and fees for graduate students to earn a master's degree in teaching as well as their salaries to work as teaching assistants. Afterward, participants commit to teaching in a high-poverty district school for three years.
The school district also has a literacy-based partnership with The Citadel that will put more trained reading teachers in district classrooms. A group of 22 teachers will graduate in May with a master's degree in literacy education, and they have committed to teaching in district schools in return for the financial support they receive. Participating teachers paid about $4,100 or one-third of their tuition and fees, while the district and The Citadel contributed the remaining two-thirds. The Citadel would like to start another group, but it's a difficult time to find the money to cover the program's cost, said Jennifer L. Altieri, the military college's literacy division coordinator.
In this first year of the Literacy Intern Project, the college and district had hoped to enroll up to 25 students, but only five are participating. Andrew Lewis, the college's director of professional development in education, said that can be attributed to timing. The partnership wasn't approved until late last summer, so recruitment for participants didn't begin until July and classes started in August.
For this coming school year, the college and district hope to enroll at least six to eight more students. The district set aside about $350,000 in federal stimulus money for the two-year program, but that money runs out at the end of the next fiscal year. The college plans to find grants or private money for this fall's class, and Lewis said he hopes to be able to sustain the program beyond then.
Scott, who teaches at Chicora School of Communications in North Charleston during the day and takes graduate classes at night, worked as a teaching assistant for about seven years before starting the Literacy Intern Project this fall. She had been taking some classes through The Citadel to earn her teaching certification, but she switched to the College of Charleston's program after hearing about it.
It's a full load of taking and teaching classes, but Scott said she doesn't mind because she loves what she's doing. Being in the classroom every day has enabled her to see her students learning and improving, and that's been a gratifying experience, she said.
"There's a whole lot more to teaching than just the books," Scott said. "They need a lot of attention, and you have to have a lot of patience. It shows you exactly what you're getting into."
Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.