Strong early invention methods are keeping young children in school, but far too many are still living in poverty and lag behind academic standards in spite of slight improvements, data from a Kids Count study shows.
Considering a broad range of issues affecting children, including health care and education, Kids Count ranks South Carolina 39th in the nation in child well-being.
The new report, titled “2017 Race for Results,” is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of child well-being for children of color in the U.S. and points to poverty and limited education among the risks to healthy child development.
While the county-level data is not broken down by race and ethnicity profiles, the report found that all children in the state struggle to meet educational benchmarks.
Eighty-one percent of Orangeburg County third-graders were testing below state reading standards in 2015. In Bamberg and Calhoun counties, 77 percent and 60 percent of third graders were testing below standard, respectively.
Eighty-nine percent of Orangeburg County eighth graders were not proficient in math in 2015, while 65 and 78 percent of eighth graders in Bamberg and Calhoun counties were not proficient in math, respectively.
In brighter news, all three counties improved in the cumulative percentage of children failing grades 1, 2 and 3 in 2015 as compared to the previous year. There were 5 percent of children failing those early grades in Orangeburg County, with 12 percent and 7 percent failing those grades in Bamberg and Calhoun counties, respectively. The state average was 4.7 percent.
Dr. Melissa Strompolis, director of research and evaluation for Children’s Trust of South Caorlina, said, “What are the things that are working well? How can we then sort of translate that better to third-grade reading? I think at the local level it’s an opportunity for us to also look at the strengths and just see what we can build off of.”
“We are very strongly into early intervention,” Bamberg School District 1 Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting said.
She said school districts, for example, are required to implement Child Find, which involves the screening of children with disabilities who are in need of early intervention or special education services.
“We’re also doing some small group instruction in the classroom, and that seems to work well. We have a literacy coach at the elementary school,” Schwarting said. “Reading is certainly the focus in the early grades."
Bamberg School District 2 Superintendent Dr. Thelma Sojourner said, “We’re emphasizing literacy with our pre-K, K and early grades. ... Then we do have a tremendous amount of professional development with our teachers."
Calhoun County School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Wilson said while he suspects the local Kids Count data has improved since 2015, he credits the district’s emphasis on early intervention as key to success in the early grades.
“I think the (state) Child Development Education Program is certainly going to help and make a difference. We’re also just providing interventions in after-school programs provided for kids who’ve been identified as having difficulties," Wilson said.
Dr. Cynthia Cash-Greene, chief instructional services officer in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, said the district is identifying as many children as possible to serve through its pre-K program with Child Find.
She said the South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness program has also supported the district’s focus on literacy in the early grades.
“They’re actually in two or three of our schools. We’ve also expanded our summer program to better serve families, adopted a learning management system” and implemented literacy strengthening software programs at the elementary school level, Cash-Greene said, adding the district also has strong professional development training with teachers.
While there has been some improvement in the percentage of children living in poverty in the tri-county region, percentages still linger above the state and national averages.
Orangeburg was cited for improvement in the reporting of 37 percent of children living in poverty in 2015 as compared to the previous year. The child poverty rates in Bamberg and Calhoun counties were reported to have worsened with 44 percent and 29 percent of children living in poverty in those areas, respectively.
Strompolis said, “It’s not just about children. It’s about supporting the people that take care of those children: making sure we have tax credits for working families and quality, affordable child care.”
Schwarting said she doesn't see poverty as being an issue that the district could solve.
“The parents are doing the best that they can do and I understand that, but we have also implemented the Community Eligibility Provision," which provide free healthy school meals to all children regardless of income, she said.
“I do think it’s significant because we’ve got to work with the whole child, not just the academic part. And I do think healthier eating contributes to a healthier brain,” said Schwarting, who also touted the increase in parental involvement and parents' own enrollment in adult education programs.
“We have a good many that take advantage of that. And then the pride in what they’ve done then sort of spills over,” she said.
Sojourner said, “First of all, you don’t remind people that they’re living in poverty. That’s not positive and doesn’t lift them up. … Our emphasis is on what we can do in the school system to help them meet the issues of what our children might need.”
Wilson said the state could stand to do more to fund small, rural school districts, which poverty tends to affect the most.
“We work our way around it (poverty). I mean, it perhaps always will be with us, but the concern is that talk is cheap. Everybody can talk about it, but what is the state willing to do in terms of changing some of the gaps of school districts in poverty? The base student cost is $500, or $600 below that the formula says it ought to be,” he said.
Cash-Greene said, “We have determined that poverty impacts the level of engagement, experience and exposure of children. So we’re trying ... to highly engage the kids in the learning experience to overcome some of the impact of children living in poverty."
The 2017 Kids Count Report can be accessed online at http://www.aecf.org/resources/2017-race-for-results/. The county-level data can be assessed online at https://scchildren.org/advocacy_and_media/kids_count_south_carolina/.