Report spotlights learning divide

InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker participated in a discussion about the area’s academic achievement gap.

High-performing Lowcountry students continue to make academic gains during their educational careers while those students who aren’t doing as well are falling further behind.

That was the takeaway from Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative’s first annual Regional Education Report unveiled Thursday during an event at Charleston Southern University. The collaborative is a group of business, education and nonprofit officials focused on improving educational outcomes for students in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

The report features a regional look at student performance based on standardized test scores from the area’s four school districts: Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester District 2 and Dorchester District 4.

Anita Zucker, chairwoman of the collaborative and chief executive officer of The InterTech Group, said the idea behind the report is to identify the area’s education challenges, while engaging all the key players about finding solutions.

“We have to have perspective to give ourselves the chance to see the improvement that we’re going to seek,” Zucker told a gathering of education and local officials.

Among the report’s most crucial findings was the persistent achievement gaps among minority and low-income students in public schools in the tri-county area compared with their white or wealthier counterparts.

Data shows that 27 percent of low-income third-grade students and 41 percent of those students in eighth grade are not reading on grade level. Only 7 percent of higher-income students in the third grade and 15 percent of those students in eighth grade are reading below grade level.

The data is even more stark for minority students, with 45 percent of black students and 31 percent of Hispanic students in the eighth grade reading below grade level compared with 17 percent of white students.

The other key finding is that white and more affluent students are making more substantial gains in school. Data shows the average third-grade reading score for white students increased 15.8 points between 2009 and 2014, compared with just two points for black students. A similar trend was seen for reading scores for the same time period for low-income students.

Ted Legasey, who serves on the collaborative’s Board of Directors and helped compile the report, said the purpose of the data isn’t to be “negative” but rather to “sharply focus on the work standing out in front of us.”

“It’s a first necessary step,” Legasey said. “If we’re ever going to take steps to improve where we are, we have to know where we are.”

About 85 area leaders attended the event, including the superintendents for all four local school districts and the presidents of Charleston Southern University, Trident Technical College and The Citadel. Charleston County School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, Berkeley County School Board Chairman Kent Murray, Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page, Charleston City Councilman William Gregorie and Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler also were among those who attended.

All of the officials engaged in group discussions about what the data means and how community leaders can help improve educational success for all students. Gregorie said he felt like officials should explore replicating programs that are successful, such as those at Buist Academy and Charleston Development Academy. Coats said school districts need more support from the community to help provide additional social services and programs for at-risk students.

Acting Charleston schools Superintendent Michael Bobby and Berkeley schools Superintendent Rodney Thompson, who serves on the collaborative’s Board of Directors, both agreed that school districts in the area do have a problem with achievement gaps among low-income and minority students.

“We’ve earned excellent ratings, but there’s an existing population of children that aren’t reaching their full potential,” Thompson said.

The task ahead, Bobby said, is really understanding the data and finding a solution.

“We have to unpack the data and figure out how do the leaders of the community address it,” he said.

One way, Bobby said, is to streamline existing services to maximize their impact on schools and students.

“I’m not sure we’re getting the most out of what we already have,” Bobby said.

Maximizing resources is exactly what Zucker has in mind, saying she’s looking to create a “collective impact” by bringing together all the players invested in helping to improve student achievement. The collaborative is moving its effort forward, Zucker said, by tapping Trident United Way and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce to lead networks to devise strategies to improve kindergarten readiness and high school graduation.

The goal, Zucker said, is to replicate successful programs across the region.

“The only way to do that is to bring everybody together,” she said.

Thompson said he hopes that by the fall, when another regional meeting is planned, strategies for the collaborative’s kindergarten and high school initiatives will be in the works to move those efforts forward.

The key, Thompson said, is to get the community to “take ownership of education in our region and not only just put it on the classroom teacher.”

“Schools are not going to be able to do this alone,” he said.