Lambs Elementary School officials in North Charleston talk about challenges during State Superintendent Mick Zais’ visit

Students are increasingly poorer at Lambs Elementary, but state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said that’s not a justification for the school being among the state’s lowest-performing, high-poverty schools.

The school has seen a more than 10 percentage point increase in its students’ poverty during the past four years, but Zais pointed to a document highlighting schools and districts with similar poverty levels that were outperforming Lambs. The difference isn’t parents’ income or education, he said.

“It’s what kind of leadership is in the school and how effective are the individual teachers,” he told Principal Jarmalar Logan, who’s in her first full year of leading the school. “I know you’re working on getting this (‘F’) grade up.”

Zais met with Logan, as well as Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley and Associate Superintendent Jim Winbush, on Monday morning to discuss the North Charleston school’s improvement efforts. It earned an ‘F’ on the federal letter grades last year and this year, but its test scores showed improvement this year.

The school’s results put it on the state’s list of Priority Schools, one of 27 Title 1 schools that are the worst-performing across all districts. Other Charleston schools on that list are: Apple Charter, Burke High, Memminger Elementary and Stall High. No Berkeley or Dorchester County schools are considered Priority Schools.

Zais said Lambs Elementary had an interesting mix of diversity that’s often not seen in schools. Nearly 60 percent are black, and 24 percent are Hispanic. Most of the remaining students are white. The school on Dorchester Road also typically has drawn its enrollment from the nearby military base, but that’s changing.

Lambs hasn’t been one of the district’s at-risk schools, nor has it been a place targeted for district-led reform plans. The school’s state report card rating last year was “below average” but it had been “average” the two previous years.

The federal letter grades evaluate schools differently than the report card ratings, and McGinley said district leaders need to look closely at what’s happening at Lambs.

An increasing number of low-income students doesn’t mean students can’t learn, but it does mean the school will need more specific resources, she said. The school has one English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher three days a week, and that’s not enough, McGinley said.

Lambs isn’t alone in seeing growth in its Hispanic student population, and that number across all of the district’s schools has reached nearly 8 percent. McGinley said she expects to talk the school board about a proposal that involves increasing services for students who don’t speak English as their first language, as well as extending the school year for needy students, to meet the district’s Vision 2016 goals.

“We at the district office need to figure out how to give additional support to schools, and we don’t have translators in all schools,” she said.

Zais said he was encouraged by the information presented by Logan, who understood the school’s weaknesses that were related to students’ achievement, specifically in math and science. Most of their conversation centered on plans in those subject areas.

Logan said she’s had candid conversations with some faculty who admitted that they were passionate about teaching English/language arts and social studies but less so about science and math. Some of the improvement strategies include Logan visiting teachers’ classrooms and listening for emphasis on math vocabulary, as well as giving teachers instructional coaching and a new math curriculum.

“We’re doing the best we can to meet the needs of students,” Logan said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.

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