How Charleston schools are resetting response to racial reading gap

The "brutal facts" of the wide gap in reading proficiency between black and white students in the Charleston County School District are producing an encouraging new response from within the system.

Teaching reading is a challenge in virtually any classroom at any level. But it's very challenging when the learners are in low-income families, and it's most challenging when they are trapped in inter-generational poverty. Most of the Charleston school system's black students are in low-income families, and many of those children are in families beset by inter-generational poverty.

The good news is that the right teaching can produce proficient readers, whatever the learners' economic circumstances. There are no excuses.

Here's how the Charleston system is ratcheting up its response to its persistent racial reading gaps, as outlined to me by the overall leader of the effort, Dr. Valerie E. Harrison, the recently appointed interim Chief Academic Officer of CCSD:

Dr. Valerie E. Harrison, new interim Chief Academic Officer in Charleston school system.

Dr. Valerie E. Harrison, new interim Chief Academic Officer in Charleston school system.

"For the past several months, a Read to Succeed Task Force has worked diligently on the development of our newly established, state-mandated Read to Succeed Plan. While the law (Act 284) requires 90 minutes of reading and writing instruction per day in the elementary grades, CCSD provides 120 minutes.

"During this time in our regular classrooms, more intentional focus will be provided on the following, with data being used to organize students for small group and individualized instruction:

  • In Prekindergarten and Kindergarten, there will be a stronger, intentional emphasis on oral language, vocabulary development and guided reading (in Kindergarten), all of which are essential in development of comprehension skills.
  • In grades 1, 2 and 3, guided reading will continue to be a priority, along with explicit phonics, vocabulary instruction, and responding to text.
  • In grades 4 and 5, comprehension will be stressed through responding to text and book clubs.  For students most in need of interventions, at least 30 additional minutes of interventions will continue to be provided daily through a pullout model. While the district has utilized a pullout model for grades 1-3 and 6-8, next year will be the first time we have used a pullout approach in grades 4-5 for extra support.
  • We will strengthen the use of a balanced literacy approach in our classrooms with a focus on improving comprehension.
  • Reading coaches will continue to serve in Title I elementary schools, and will, also, be supported by part-time Title I coaches who will provide additional support in Grades 4-5.

"Our past intervention focus in CCSD has been on serving students in grades 1-3 and 6-8 who were at or below the 25th percentile. Our intervention focus for the 2016- 2017 school year will now include students up through the 40th percentile, which should have a great impact on the proficiency of students as measured by state and national assessments.

"Finally, we are investigating some blended learning opportunities for students. While we do not know yet if funding will be made available, we are examining options that are evidence-based and focus on phonics and comprehension, both of which you referenced."

Harrison comes to CCSD from predominantly black Claflin University in Orangeburg - her hometown - where she was dean of the School of Education. But she has an extensive background in PK-12 education, including working with the families of students.

CCSD Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait -- author of the Feb. 22 "brutal facts" review of student achievement in the county system -- said this about Harrison when she announced her appointment: "As the interim Chief Academic Officer, I am confident her extensive experience and passion for educating all youth will make a significant impact; her expertise will immediately assist us in reaching our goals."

There's accumulating evidence that any student, regardless of his/her family-community-economic circumstances, can become a proficient reader. The ability to read with fluency and comperhension is the foundation of all learning, the best predictor of success in career and college, years of research consistently shows. It will take some time to tell whether the new and expanded reading instruction and support that Harrison spells out here works. It can't be said to often that reading - teaching it and learning it - is hard. But when you look at Harrison's credentials and her determination, and Postlewait's public pledge to a new, communitywide educational culture that meets the needs of all students, I think we should be encouraged.

TOM GRUBISICH