The percentage of Charleston County rising freshmen who are reading at a fourth-grade level or worse has dropped to a five-year low of 12.1 percent.

Over the years

The Charleston County School District has been tracking the percentage of rising freshmen reading at a fourth-grade level or worse since 2009.

Number of rising freshmen Percentage reading at fourth-grade level or worse

2009 2,623 18.1

2010 2,444 14

2011 2,576 12.9

2012 2,805 13.1

2013 2,870 12.1

Source: Charleston County School District

That means nearly one in eight entering freshmen can’t read better than a fourth-grader this fall, compared with nearly one in five in 2009. The district began calculating the percentage in response to a request from The Post and Courier.

“I absolutely think it’s an important number to track because this is something that is an indicator of high school readiness,” said School Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “If students are reading at such a low level when they’re entering ninth grade, they’re going to struggle in every single subject and possibly drop out. This is very, very critical to us to continue to track, and I am encouraged by the progress we are making but committed to making even more progress.”

District progress

The newspaper’s stories in 2009 revealed that nearly 20 percent of the county’s incoming ninth-graders were reading at a fourth-grade level or worse. The school board made literacy its No. 1 priority less than a year later, and the district will spend $7.5 million this year on programs to help struggling readers.

With the exception of last year, the percentage of rising freshmen reading on a fourth-grade level or lower has decreased each year since 2009. The percentage fluctuated up .2 percentage points last year to 13.1 before falling again this year.

Board policy requires the district to have a plan to address weak students’ reading, so McGinley created literacy academies for primary and middle grades.

She attributed some of the district’s progress to those efforts being more effective in middle school. The district expanded its efforts in the middle grades from serving only struggling sixth-graders to working with poor readers in sixth through eighth grades. Students who needed extra help had a separate class dedicated to reading.

She expects to see more gains after this coming school year because of those changes, as well as a new mandate that all middle school teachers be certified.

McGinley said that while nothing is more important than literacy, math needs to be more of an emphasis this school year.

“Everyone in the district knows what our focus is,” she said. “Now the challenge is to talk about math literacy. We can’t just ride the literacy horse and ignore math. We have to really send that message in a much more deliberate way than we have.”

The numbers

School board member Chris Fraser, one of the two remaining board members who voted to make literacy the district’s top priority, pointed out that the district’s number of incoming freshmen has risen during the past five years.

So although the percentage of students reading at low levels has dropped significantly, the district still has quite a few students who haven’t improved, he said. Those figures also don’t take into account students reading at a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade level, he said. The Post and Courier has asked for those figures in the past but not received them.

“We’re making progress, but we’re nowhere close where we need to be,” he said. “It’s hard to take this information and make any statement about how much better we are.”

The district has to balance its resources and put the most effort where it can see the biggest return, and he said he’s looking forward to seeing the results from elementary students who benefited from the district’s literacy academies.

“Our efforts have been bigger in the earlier grades, and we won’t see the impact until those grades matriculate,” he said.

Of the 12.1 percent of this fall’s freshmen reading at or below a fourth-grade level, nearly half are either English language learners or special needs students. Those students need additional help and might take longer than their peers to read on grade level, McGinley said.

Some schools that saw upticks in the percentage of students reading on an elementary level, such as Stall High and St. John’s High, also have increasing percentages of students who don’t speak English as their first language.

“Those are examples of areas where we need more expertise in getting our non-English speakers to become fluent in English, but that’s an additional resource that we have to keep expanding and something that did not exist years ago,” she said.

Another issue for schools is student mobility, or students who start the school year at one school, then bounce to multiple sites. No matter how bright and capable students are, they will face challenges if they’re moved into and out of schools, McGinley said.

“We’re trying to get at the root cause of these things,” she said.

Making gains

The school that saw the biggest percentage-point improvement from last year was Lincoln High. Nearly 47 percent of its rising freshmen last year read at or below a fourth-grade level, and that fell to 22.2 percent this year. The school also saw improvement in every subject on its middle school students’ PASS scores.

“It’s been an uphill battle, and I’m just so excited,” said Principal Yvonne Commodore. “We’re working hard out here. We’re working tremendously hard.”

Commodore said last year its percentage of freshmen reading at elementary levels was alarming, and she recognized middle school was an area needing work. She moved her office to the middle school hallway, and teachers volunteered to work six Saturdays before the state’s PASS tests to help students prepare.

Her staff collaborated with St. James-Santee Elementary teachers, and they set high expectations. Middle school students had a new, 45-minute advisory period each week during which they received extra help.

“We can’t control what they do outside the building, so let’s focus on what we can do inside,” she said.

Although she’s proud of the improvement, she said she’s not satisfied, and she plans to continue and add on to last year’s efforts.

“I never want us to be comfortable,” she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.