As South Carolina’s lawmakers seek ways to improve education, they need to look at the challenges that are facing all American schools, Rep. Jerry Govan said Thursday.
He cited a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures that found American students lag behind those in many other nations in math, science and reading, and the problem has only gotten worse in the last decade.
“What they found is we really cannot ignore what is happening in our state educational systems, because (they) were falling dangerously behind the world, leaving the United States overwhelmingly unprepared to succeed in the 21st century,” the Orangeburg Democrat said.
Govan hosted a community town hall meeting on “Envisioning the Future of Education in Orangeburg County” at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College on Thursday.
South Carolina is about to start upon on “a new chapter of educational reform,” he said, referring to a bill currently being discussed in the S.C. House of Representatives.
The South Carolina Career Opportunity and Access for All Act is a wide-ranging proposal that includes changes to standardized testing, increasing starting salaries for teachers and consolidating school districts with fewer than 1,000 students.
The bill would eliminate tests not required by the Every Student Succeeds Act as well as expand K-4 education and create assessments for the Read to Succeed initiative. It would set a minimum starting salary for teachers at $35,000. It also includes incentives for teachers, including free college tuition for some teachers and the option for districts to reimburse teachers for driving more than 25 miles to work.
“This evening is very special because we’re about to embark on a very special and unique course of action for the state of South Carolina when it comes to education,” Govan said.
Guest speaker Dr. Monifa Bellinger McKnight said her 6-year-old son changed her as an educator.
“I knew I always loved children,” she said. But “when I became a parent, it allowed me to grow and understand things from a much broader perspective.
“So when I had to come in contact with parents as a principal who probably didn’t have the best way to communicate their needs, I understood it because I understood as a parent, you just want what’s best for your child. And so I grew a lot of patience there.”
McKnight is a former Orangeburg resident who received her undergraduate degree from South Carolina State University. She currently serves as chief of schools for the Howard County, Maryland school district, serving 58,000 students.
Families in other countries, “have built a structure of support around education, so that when it’s successful or it fails, everybody owns it. So I think there’s an opportunity there for us to continue to build on that.”
She spoke of her time as a principal. In 2015, she was brought in to reform a school. It was modernized and it didn’t have a high rate of students receiving free or reduced-priced meals.
“I was like, ‘What’s happening?’” McKnight said.
But when she looked at the data, she found that only some of the students were performing well and some were not.
“And the ones who were not – people didn’t think it was a priority,” she said.
So she began to work with the staff to make them understand a few things, she said.
First, there needed to be a culture in which students felt that they were really cared for.
“And we also wanted to make sure that parents knew we were committed to making sure their children received the education that they expected in that classroom,” she said.
As she worked through the issues with her staff, she began to understand “the importance of not only supporting teachers in their growth, but the importance of valuing their hard work and acknowledging they do it.”
“Teaching is not easy,” she said. “And I’ll tell you, the needs have shifted for our students and our families. And our students bring a lot of things into the school and the classroom that we really didn’t have to worry about as much 20 years ago.”
When teachers are valued, they invest more than they are asked to, she said.
McKnight also learned that parents need to know how schools are meeting their children’s needs.
“Whether it’s a child who’s struggling to make progress or a student who is performing grade levels ahead of where they’re supposed to be, parents must know that their kids’ needs are being met,” she said.
She’s found that it’s a best practice for schools to share their vision of learning ahead of parents asking for it.
Educators must also look at barriers keeping students from learning, she said.
“I believe that we’re in a place where we have to focus on the mental and emotional and social well-being of students. It’s important for us to always be open to learning from others in this area by noting that funding for schools has to include this piece,” she said.
When she moved into a leadership development position with the district, she realized the value of schools being flexible.
“I realized, OK, in 205 schools, people are approaching education in a very diversified way that works differently for their needs and their communities. And it’s OK to do that, because education isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ institution,” she said.
The forum also included a panel of educational and legal experts who made their own observations and took questions and comments from the audience.
One of the panelists, 1st Circuit Family Court Judge Anne Gue Jones, shared her experiences with truant children and their parents.
“We had a grandmother who was in court this morning because her 10-year-old was not attending school,” Jones said. “I started questioning her about where the parents were. She doesn’t know where mom is, mom’s been gone for about four years.
“Her son is the father of the child. Her son is in jail in Orangeburg County, she doesn’t know why he’s in jail,” she said. “And the 10-year-old has been exposed to a good bit of trauma.”
And she said that’s probably typical for children who come through her court for truancy.
Students bring their trauma with them and the parents expect the schools to handle it, she said.
“And that’s part of the problem that we’re seeing, and I think we’ve got to come up with a way to be innovative in the school about meeting the social, the emotional and the mental issues that these children have because from my perspective ... that is where we start to lose children,” she said.
John Gailer, assistant director for programs and outreach with the National Dropout Prevention Center, expanded on the topic.
Schools start with “foundational learning, your basics – your reading, writing and arithmetic – and they move on through and go to where a student grows, gets to pick individualized instruction,” he said.
And when they get to the end of their school career, they start focusing on personal and communication skills, he said.
“And we’re finding that the schools’ answers to struggles along that path are usually to hit it with more academic interventions – things like after-school programs, tutoring, summer programs.”
But research is beginning to show that what is actually lacking is interpersonal skills and connecting with others, he said.
Gailer’s group has held conferences called “Reaching the Wounded Student,” dealing with students with trauma. But there will be no more of the conferences, he said, because they just talk about understanding the problem, but without solutions.
“We’ve moved toward ... a model that says, ‘OK, we understand it. Now what are we going to do about it?’” he said.
To aid schools in restructuring themselves to this end, his group released the “trauma-skilled model” which has several components.
The first is awareness, and most schools will stop at this point, he said. The second is cultural transformation – changing the culture of the school to build resiliency.
“Trauma is no longer saying, ‘This child is abused, this child has a parent who is incarcerated, this child has lost a parent.’ Trauma is no longer an event that has happened. It’s an emotional response of that child to anything,” he said, even things that are benign.
“But they still carry that emotional response with them. And that emotional response actually does some stuff in the brain that affects the behavior of that child and affects the learning ability of that child,” he said.
And so teachers need to learn to teach differently in a way that can help that student, he said.
“Students with trauma typically feel totally out of control. They feel like they have no choice in their life, bad stuff just happens to them,” he said.
“But if they are taught and they are given options in instruction, in discipline, in academics and activities ... if they are given choices, that actually is something that can help ground them.”
Dr. Jacqueline Inabinette, executive director of federal programs and student services for Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, talked about federal funding, and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College President Dr. Walt Tobin spoke about the opportunities for high school students to earn college credits at OCtech while still in school.
An audience member said that the opportunities for high school and technical college students in Orangeburg County are commendable, but the real issue is getting through to students beginning at the elementary level.
Students who don’t get what they need “become a menace to society,” he said.
“Are we making the kids a priority? Will the legislature make them a priority?” he said. “They’ve got to come across the aisles and make it happen.
“I don’t need to hear and see all this stuff. It’s gibberish,” he said. “Do it. We’re behind every country in the world.”