A new writing program for Charleston County elementary schools became tangled in controversy Monday night before eventually getting the go-ahead.
The school board signed off in a 6-3 vote on spending $110,000 for the Lucy Calkins’ Writing Units of Study program for all of its kindergartners through fifth-graders. Those voting against were board Vice Chairman Tom Ducker and members Michael Miller and Tripp Wiles.
“We think we will need this, and we think we need it now,” said School Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
Board members had different reasons for opposing the relatively small expenditure. The program will be paid for with state money that’s not in the board’s general operating budget, which is $383.2 million this year.
The district proposed the new program because the Common Core State Standards requires students to write frequently and for specific purposes starting in kindergarten, and officials said the district needed a more rigorous and comprehensive program to meet that mandate.
The standards are new guidelines for what students must learn in grades K-12 in English language arts and math, but state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would end the implementation of those changes.
Wiles, who was sworn on to the school board earlier Monday evening, has said he doesn’t support the standards. In some of his first public comments at a board meeting, he questioned what would happen with the writing program if the state doesn’t move forward with Common Core.
Regardless of the fate of Common Core, McGinley said the district’s children need to be better writers, and officials haven’t invested in any type of districtwide writing program.
When she met with principals to review test scores, she said “we zeroed in on writing scores and how weak they were relative to reading.”
This marks the first time in more than a decade that all of the district’s elementary schools will be using the same approach to teach writing, she said.
“It’s just a really good method of teaching writing, and that’s not going to go away if anything changes in Common Core,” said Betsy Reidenbach, the district’s director of its literacy-based learning division.
Board member Michael Miller said he was concerned that teachers wouldn’t receive the necessary training to be able to do what the program could deliver. He also wondered whether it was a good decision to buy one program that would be used in every school because schools have different students with varying needs. Officials said the program helps teachers tune into each child’s individual needs and develop their skills.
Board member Tom Ducker said the board’s new committee system should’ve required that this kind of information be put before the strategic education committee, and he suggested that it be delayed until the 2014-15 school year. The proposal had been vetted and approved by the board’s audit and finance committee.
McGinley responded by saying officials wanted to “get some mileage” from the program this year, and they didn’t want to wait until this fall.
“We have identified money in the current budget to enable us to purchase it immediately, so the last five months of the school year, schools have the benefit of using this material,” she said.
In other business, the board:
Unanimously approved an agreement with the South Carolina Ports Authority that will enable Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School teachers to park on port property. The downtown school doesn’t have a parking lot, and the streets surrounding the school are crowded with up to 40 staff members’ cars. School staff likely will be trained to operate a shuttle bus to take teachers to and from the lot.
Unanimously agreed to spend $138,000 to expand Engaging Creative Minds, a public-private partnership designed to increase students’ access to arts and culture, to seven additional schools this year. The project began last year in eight schools and has shown positive results.
Unanimously agreed to offer a contract to the lowest bidder for site work for the new North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary School.
Unanimously accepted last year’s financial audit.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.