It’s time to put all StudentsFirst in South Carolina

Amanda Hobson is a first-grade master reading teacher at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School in Charleston and a StudentsFirst teacher fellow.

Today, the national education reform organization StudentFirst will announce that it has expanded into South Carolina and will be fighting on behalf of kids here at the state level.

I worked hard to bring StudentsFirst to our state, and the reason for that is simple.

When I took my first teaching position, at a school here in South Carolina with both students from affluent families and those living in poverty, I was absolutely shocked at the huge disparity I saw. On one end of the spectrum, I had first-graders walk into my classroom able to read at a third-grade level. At the other end of the spectrum, I taught first-graders who started the school year already an entire grade level behind.

As I studied more about the achievement gap it became obvious to me that our schools are not educating all children equally or appropriately. And that compelled me to become an advocate for disadvantaged students and families.

However, as I began paying closer attention to education reform discussions both here and in other states, there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency. Our children are failing to learn how to read — fourth-graders here rank 40th out of 50 states, with just 28 percent at proficient levels — but I hear no concern coming from elected officials in Columbia. In too many disadvantaged communities, kids have no choice but to attend a low-performing school, but I don’t see parents or community groups up in arms.

To me, providing every child a quality education is a matter of social justice. All students possess the ability to learn and achieve at high-levels, no matter what neighborhood they live in or what salary their parents earn. Through a great education, I believe that every single child in our country has the opportunity to rise out of poverty and find success in life.

That’s also what StudentsFirst and its founder Michelle Rhee believe. You may have heard about Rhee. Long before she started StudentsFirst, she taught in an inner-city school in Baltimore. Then she went on to become chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C., where she closed down ineffective schools, fired principals who weren’t doing their jobs and made it her mission to give parents better choices for their kids’ educations. When I met her, I knew I’d found someone like-minded — someone who is concerned that children wake up every day in communities throughout our country and walk into schools that are failing them.

There are more than enough organizations that work on behalf of what adults want. StudentsFirst tries to balance that by fighting for what our kids need, and it does so guided by three major ideals.

First, it believes in empowering parents with good choices and ample information about their school options.

Second, it advocates for transparency in school funding and governance so that taxpayers can see clearly what money is going into the classroom.

Lastly, it believes teachers ought to be treated like professionals, which means they should be rewarded when they perform for their students, but also be accountable when they don’t.

Over the past year, I’ve helped develop a network of more than 100 teachers in our state who care about reforming education here. We want to give teachers a louder voice in Columbia when it comes to policy issues that affect the quality of our schools.

That’s exactly what StudentsFirst does. Its mission is to help put policies in place at the state level and put individuals in elected office who will put the needs of students above all else. In just two years, StudentsFirst has helped put more than 100 student-focused policies into place and 135 people into legislative offices across 17 states.

As a teacher who cares dearly about closing the achievement gap between low-income children and more privileged ones, I am excited about what StudentsFirst can help South Carolina schools achieve.

There’s no reason we can’t make our schools the best in the nation, and we start today.

Amanda Hobson is a first-grade master reading teacher at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School in Charleston and a StudentsFirst teacher fellow.