NCHS at Black Refractions (copy)

North Charleston High School sophomores Samaria Cantey, Michaela Brown, Kesiah Samuels and Kaylin Nesbitt view a touring exhibition at Gibbes Museum. The high school was one of six special intervention schools in Charleston County that advanced from unsatisfactory to below average on this year's SC school report cards.

The only people who dread report cards more than less-than-superior students are teachers, principals and other school officials. For two decades now, they’ve decried the annual school and district report cards, which have been used by school critics to exaggerate our deficiencies, by real estate agents to steer parents to the best schools and away from the average ones and even by communities bad-mouthing their neighbors in industrial recruitment.

But that was never supposed to be the point of report cards. Report cards were supposed to make it harder for the best schools to hide their failure to educate all kids, so we could demand better, and to identify the schools that were struggling the most — so we could help them improve.

Last year, South Carolina used newly retooled report cards to designate nine “unsatisfactory” schools in Charleston County and 40 statewide for “comprehensive support and intervention” — and to start providing extra assistance. Starting in January, the state Education Department equipped each school with a transformation coach and, based on a needs assessment, is giving each $150,000 to $280,000 to pay for evidence-based interventions for three years.

Last week, we got some good news: The overwhelming majority of those schools have improved. In fact, they’re improving faster than the state as a whole.

Statewide, a third of public schools moved up a category in the ratings — say, from good to excellent, or unsatisfactory to below average. Of the 35 intervention schools included in last week’s report cards, by comparison, 71 percent moved out of unsatisfactory, with 10 jumping to “average” and two all the way to “good.”

The improvement was even more striking in Charleston County, where 42 percent of the schools moved up at least one category. Among the targeted schools, 88 percent moved up: One jumped from unsatisfactory to average, while six moved to below average; one is still rated as unsatisfactory, but its numerical score went up about 15 percent.

Have the schools improved enough? Absolutely not. It’s a slow process. That’s why the state committed to three years of assistance — at a minimum. And that’s why, we’re glad to note, the Charleston County School District isn’t relying just on state assistance, but is targeting our lowest-performing schools with even more attention and resources, through its “mission critical” reform plan.

Even poor districts that lack Charleston’s resources can work with the state to find better approaches to teaching, and reassess the too-frequent practice of sending the best teachers to teach in the best schools and dumping the least experienced and least successful teachers in the schools that need the most help. And they should.

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Of course, even with three years’ assistance, the special intervention schools probably won’t improve enough, because “enough” would mean that all the students are making Lake Wobegon-style above-average scores on their tests, and they’re all ready to go to college or into a job when they graduate from high school. That has to be our goal, always, even if it’s not always reachable.

And the report cards should serve as an encouragement and as a vital reminder to parents and community leaders and school officials — and to the Legislature — that if we provide schools with the right kind of help, they can provide their students a better education.

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