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Scoppe: How is it even possible to educate SC’s poorest kids? This program holds clues

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We know that the children who do the best in school are the ones whose parents are their most important teachers. We know that teachers value parental involvement and respect more than just about anything — in many cases more than better pay and benefits.

So it’s probably true, as one reader recently put it, that teachers don’t mind large class sizes if they're in schools where “they are supported and appreciated by parents and their principals,” and that students do best in such schools.

It’s probably true too that schools “where parents do not value education have not achieve(d) the same academic results despite much higher per pupil funding, costly K4 and literacy programs and a wide range of wrap around services needed to counter the dysfunctionality of their family and community.”

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

But what do we do with those truths? Although we know there are great parents who are poor and lousy parents who are wealthy, we also know that what my correspondent is really saying is that students learn more in schools that are filled with upper-middle-class students rather than poor students.

Taken to its logical extreme, that leads to this question: Can we really educate kids who are growing up in generational poverty, or are we wasting perfectly good money trying?

Now, to people like my correspondent, this isn’t even a question. They’re firmly convinced that our schools are “awash in money,” that more won’t improve educational outcomes and that the only possible answer is to somehow require parents to be better parents.

And to people like me — who are firmly convinced that we have no choice but to succeed in educating poor kids, since they will be part of our communities whether they're educated or not — it’s the wrong question. The right question is: What's the best way to educate kids who are growing up in generational poverty?

But for people who are neither certain that public schools are destined to fail nor bought into the “failure is not an option” mindset, it’s a legitimate question.

And a very hopeful answer came a few days ago, courtesy of S.C. First Steps to School Readiness, the state-funded early childhood education program that's best known for sending nurses and other specialists into homes to help parents care for and teach their newborns and toddlers.

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An independent evaluation of the program released Nov. 1 looked at a bunch of touchy-feely factors: Do parents feel like First Steps programs empowered them to be better parents? Do day care providers consider its services valuable? But it also measured something that’s solid and real and valuable: Do poor kids show up for kindergarten better prepared to learn if they’ve been served by First Steps? And the answer was … yes.

The study compared scores on the  S.C. Kindergarten Readiness Assessment of First Steps students and similar students not served by First Steps. That assessment measures language, math, physical well-being and social foundations, and grades kids as “emerging readiness, “approaching readiness” or “demonstrating readiness.”

The 1,845 First Steps kids were 74 percent more likely to score at the highest level — “demonstrating readiness” — than the matched kids, and 62 percent more likely to score at “approaching readiness.” The study also found that First Steps kids were 66 percent less likely to be “chronically absent” once in kindergarten. (The study didn't cover 4K, a much larger program overseen jointly by First Steps and the state Department of Education.)

Parents interviewed by the researchers reported that First Steps home visitors got them into the habit of doing homework with their children and provided activities that build children’s sensory and communications skills and help them learn letters and words, recognize numbers and colors, count to 10, read and follow directions.

There’s no guarantee that being ready for kindergarten will translate into being able to read by third grade, or being college- or career-ready by graduation. But the skills that parents say First Steps is helping them teach their kids are the very ones that teachers and researchers say make all the difference between kids who succeed in school and kids who start school behind and get further behind every year. So it stands to reason that if we can prevent kids from starting off behind — that is, if they start school caught up with their middle-class peers — we increase our chance of keeping them caught up.

Unfortunately, First Steps isn't large enough to reach most kids who could use help. Last year, it served about 30,000 of the state’s 180,000 low-income children ages 5 years and younger. And some of those children received only what director Georgia Mjartan calls a “very light touch” — simply getting a backpack full of books, for instance.

If we want to make real progress in providing a decent education to the 52 percent of S.C. children who live in poverty, we might want to try helping more of them start school already caught up. Fortunately, we have a state agency that knows how to do that.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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