In a state where the fundamental skills of reading and writing are sometimes out of students' reach, Marta Molina has found the secret to success.

Only it's not a secret. It's a little old-fashioned, but she'll gladly tell you.

Teamwork. Phonics. Finding books that children love. Building strong relationships with students and their parents.

As a teacher of students learning English as a second language at Fort Dorchester Elementary in Summerville, Molina preaches the values that have made the suburban Dorchester County School District 2 a standout in literacy.

"It's hard to fall between the cracks here," Molina said.

What makes a district like Dorchester 2 tick, and what makes a majority of South Carolina's students fall behind their peers nationwide, loom as vital questions as the state Legislature and education leaders seek solutions to the vexing problems facing the state's public schools.

Prodded to action by The Post and Courier's 2018 investigation "Minimally Adequate," lawmakers have been inviting teachers and other experts to the Statehouse this year to find out what they need to succeed. They've gotten a long list of sometimes-conflicting suggestions.

To those outside the world of school politics, it can come as a surprise that reading and writing are so fraught with controversy.

But in South Carolina in particular, the winds of partisan politics, the priorities of the standardized testing industry and the preferences of individual principals or superintendents all can determine how — or even if — a child learns to read.

Where to start?

The overall picture of early English education in South Carolina is dire. While most states ratcheted up their English standards and saw improvements on English tests over the past decade, South Carolina slid back. On the most recent round of tests known as the Nation's Report Card, South Carolina fourth-graders plummeted to 47th in the country in reading.

The solution could be as daunting as solving the chronic teacher shortage, or as deceptively simple as helping teachers pinpoint their students' individual needs. It could be as technocratic as adding more nuance to the schools' grade-level reading standards, as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recommended in 2014 when it rated the state standards as "Weak."

Kelley White, an assistant professor in the College of Charleston's Teacher Education Department, believes one crucial factor tends to get glossed over in high-level debates about education. Her research focuses on the role of teacher-student relationships on academic success.

One of White's key findings is that students who experience conflict in the classroom tend to have lower outcomes in literacy. And students who feel safe and secure in their classroom tend to fare better at writing in particular.

Colleges of education are increasingly trying to get prospective teachers into real-world classrooms early and often so that they learn to navigate the social dynamics before they enter the profession, White said. 

"I think it gets harder once they’re in schools and the pressure to keep their job is based on how students perform on standardized tests and not on how the climate is in their class," White said.

System 44 at Eagle Nest Elementary (copy)

Eagle Nest Elementary School third-grader Emmanuel Milledge celebrates his success on part of the System 44 reading course with teacher Kelly Nobbs on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A proven method

The morning routine in Elizabeth Manning's second-grade classroom at Fort Dorchester Elementary begins with carpet time. Seated on a patterned rug, the children chat quietly and discuss the "community question" that Principal Annette Pletcher shares during the morning announcements. Friday's was: "What's a way that you have shown kindness to someone else?"

As the students open up, they share their concerns with Manning. One recently told her about feeling left out on the playground because she had injured her foot.

"It gives us an opportunity to build non-academic relationships," Manning said. "They're learning to be kids and talk and be social."

Despite the free-wheeling feel of the early morning, every minute is carefully planned at Fort Dorchester. In a fast-growing county whose budget is crimped by the state funding formula, staffing is limited and teachers must team up to meet the needs of the school's nearly 1,000 students.

When it comes to literacy instruction, the district uses a blueprint that has not changed radically since the mid-2000s — because it works.

At every elementary school in the district, every classroom teacher spends 2½ hours a day on literacy. That time is broken into five half-hour blocks, including phonics, word study and writing.

During a period set aside for differentiated instruction, teachers use the latest test scores to tweak each student's assignment and challenge them where they need it most.

"It should be just a little bit over their own level," said Susan Kephart, elementary curriculum facilitator for the district.

By most academic measures, Dorchester 2 stands head and shoulders above the school districts in neighboring Berkeley and Charleston counties and above the state as a whole.

And the district is off the charts when it comes to the percentage of English language-learners who are making progress toward mastering the language. Ninety-three percent of ESL students hit their progress goals on the ACCESS test last school year, second only to Gold Hill Elementary in Rock Hill.

Fort Dorchester Elementary

Fort Dorchester Elementary ESL teachers work with students who have 14 different native languages and are learning English as a second or other language. A map in a main hallway shows where students' families are from. Brad Nettles/Staff

A scattershot approach

Not every district is as coordinated as Dorchester 2. In some schools, a literacy program could come from a superintendent who got pitched on a new computer product, or from a teacher who saw an inspiring idea on Pinterest. Some schools seek peer-reviewed research on a product before they buy into it. Others don't.

It is "extremely common" for a district to have a hodgepodge of effective and ineffective strategies, according to Lisa Piazzola, a Charleston-based education consultant who has worked with South Carolina and Pennsylvania school districts. 

"Every single district decides what assessment, what curriculum, and what resources they’re going to use, and many times even in a district it varies from school to school and grade level to grade level," Piazzola said.

When Charleston County School District officials tried to take stock of their own schools' literacy intervention programs in 2015, a survey of principals revealed a scattershot approach. Elementary school principals reported using 31 unique programs.

The long list of programs read like a vendor booth directory at an education convention: Reading Recovery, Reading Partners, Reading Mastery, Read for Success, Success Maker, Achieve 3000, Accelerated Reader, Language Live, and more.

Some schools used computer programs. Some pulled students out of science or social studies or art class for intervention. At least one school had struggling students come back for extra class time in something called "Saturday School."

In a November 2015 report on the state of affairs, district officials noted a problem that would be considered heresy in certain academic circles: "Several programs that are used as interventions are not research-based." The district should reduce the number of programs it used, the report found, and those programs should all be backed up by solid research.

The omnibus education bill being hammered out in the state House of Representatives this year echoes that concern, adding the phrase "evidence-based" to the law five times to describe the type of literacy interventions schools should be using.

Three years after the intervention report, Charleston County teachers still have a wide range of programs to choose from. But according to Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Emilie Woody, a team of educators works at each school to ensure the programs they use are backed by solid evidence and tailored to each student's needs. Literacy coaches, psychologists and intervention specialists all work alongside teachers to identify their needs.

"It's not about a program. It’s a comprehensive look," Woody said. "We’re talking about the foundational things in good teaching, and it begins with a good relationship."

Third Grade summer reading camp (copy) (copy)

Betty Smalls, a literacy interventionist at Charleston Progressive Academy, leads students through a literacy exercise during the summer reading camp at James Simons Elementary in June 2018. File/Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Back to the Reading Wars?

The S.C. Education Oversight Committee, an agency best known for its annual school report cards, has pushed state education leaders to clarify their approach to literacy. During an August 2018 literacy symposium, the top priority the agency identified was creating "a consistent and explicit state plan" for teaching students to read.

Agency leaders have pointed to Mississippi's LETRS program for professional development as a model of what works in rural and high-poverty schools like South Carolina's.

"We need more teachers understanding that, for children in poverty who have little exposure to the spoken word before kindergarten, these students need a vastly different type of literacy instruction early on, instruction that focuses on phonics and phonemic awareness," said Melanie Barton, executive director of the EOC.

Comments like Barton's harken back to an old debate known as "the Reading Wars," which flared up on the national education scene in the 1990s.

In one camp, proponents of "whole language" believed that teachers should focus on how children make meaning from text. They emphasized the importance of providing culturally relevant and interesting books, reading aloud with students, and generally instilling a love of reading at an early age.

The other camp called for a return to phonics, the building blocks of words. By teaching the rules of English spelling and pronunciation (and the myriad exceptions), they argued that teachers could prepare students to sound out unfamiliar words.

While some research has shown explicit phonics instruction to be particularly important for children from low-income backgrounds, the phonics-versus-whole-language debate has not been sparking brawls at many school board meetings hearings in this century. Several South Carolina districts, including Dorchester 2, resolved the tension by adopting a "blended" or "balanced" approach that draws on the strengths of both schools of thought.

"It's kind of like 'Let's be Switzerland, not take a stand,'" said Dana Yow, a spokesperson for the EOC.

As districts have adopted a more agnostic literacy stance, some teachers have grown wary of top-down mandates. 

"We don't teach a curriculum. We teach kids," said Chris Hass, an second grade teacher in Richland County School District 2 who has testified in Statehouse hearings on the education system overhaul this year.

"What teachers, as a whole, need is to be allowed to teach again," Hass added. "To be treated as professionals and given authentic support along the way to keep growing their practice."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.