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Focus on South Carolina

Photo Courtesy of Windy Tuck

There are so many problems in education that need to be fixed and no one seems to be able to agree on how to do that.  That is because there is no one way that is going to work for every state, every district, every school or every child.  This is why schools, teachers and parents need to be able to make the decisions that will work for their situations.

I’m going to focus on what one South Carolina school is doing to make a difference in the lives of their students.  Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School is a Title One school in the Rock Hill School District.  Many of their students begin their educational careers behind their peers.  Ebenezer has students that are homeless, that speak English as a second language, that have disabilities, low income and the list of learning deficits goes on and on.  Last year Ebenezer’s ratings were average and they did not make AYP.  I’ve had parents contact me; they’ve looked at Ebenezer on paper and it does not look good.  As the mother of three children ranging in age from 11 to 22, I’ve had a child at Ebenezer for a majority of the last 15 years.  It has always been a school filled with caring professionals.  But, I am amazed at the changes it has made this school year which show their commitment to our children.  Principal Johneka Simmons is not waiting for Superman or Superintendants to lead the way to educational excellence.

Principal Simmons has not only taken on this leadership role for herself and her teachers but also for her students.  The Ebenezer Avenue school community now has a dynamic school-wide focus on leadership development.  They are preparing students in pre-kindergarten through grade sixth for their individual and group leadership responsibilities as a part of the curriculum. 

The state of South Carolina may not be able to agree whose job it is to ready children for kindergarten, but, they do agree that children who arrive unprepared for first grade’s challenges have a difficult time catching up and succeeding throughout the rest of their school years. Many of these students drop out of school or do not find fulfilling productive jobs after high school as a result of their slow start.  After the alarming realization that one in seven children in South Carolina was not ready for first grade, the General Assembly created S.C. First Steps to School Readiness in 1999. Currently, First Steps is the
state's only entity focused exclusively on increasing school readiness outcomes for all children ages 0 to 5.  First Steps helps to fund parenting programs, such as ParentSmart which has a family educator working with Ebenezer parents.  Ebenezer Avenue added a full day, 4-year-old kindergarten class.  I was amazed at how far these children had come in just four months as I interacted with them at the Main Street Children’s Museum recently.  These children are well on their way to a successful educational career.

Ebenezer Avenue is making the most of its proximity to Winthrop University, a school with the reputation as the flagship teacher education program in South Carolina and the region.  Winthrop University is renting out the portable building in Ebenezer’s playground this semester.  A class of Physical Education Majors will not only conduct their classes there, but will create physical education programs to work with the elementary students during recess.  Sixth Grade students walk to Winthrop one day a month to work with Winthrop student leaders.

One hour a day you will find all of the students at Ebenezer Avenue reading.  But, you may not find the students in their own classroom or even with their own grade level.  The students move to reading groups throughout the school based on their reading levels.  Students that require additional help can receive it; and students that are more advanced can move forward.  The students are extremely encouraging to one another.  No matter their grade level, they are equals in their reading groups.

I am most proud of the fifth grade teachers at Ebenezer Avenue.  This school year the school added a class of sixth graders.  One teacher was added to teach the 26 sixth graders that opted to remain at Ebenezer Avenue instead of going on to Middle School.  The sixth graders are divided into regular and advanced classes (and even double advanced math), just like at the middle schools.  Here, the fifth grade teachers have all taken on the additional job of teaching sixth grade classes.  I’ve been amazed to see the enthusiasm these teachers have for teaching these additional subjects, especially knowing they are not receiving any monetary compensation. They are excited to be sharing their expertise and it is contagious with the students.  One fifth grade teacher is even teaching band.

Ebenezer Avenue Elementary is just one example of an outstanding school in South Carolina.  Don’t judge a school by its location or test scores.  Open their doors, walk in their classrooms, talk to their teachers and students.  Let’s stop all of the name calling and politicking when it comes to education and focus on what’s really important – meeting the needs of each student.

Windy Tuck is the South Carolina Mom Congress representative for 2011. Windy is the mother of Courtney, now a nurse, Joshua a junior at the Citadel and 6th grader Cameron. Windy serves on the York County South Carolina First Steps board. She works full time for the Culture and Heritage Museums where she is transitioning from the position as School Program Manager to Volunteer Resource Manager.   She also teaches classes at her local YMCA.  She is an extremely active member of her community both in and outside of the schools.

Windy considers volunteer service a responsibility of every community member.  It’s something she learned from her parents through their actions is one of the most important legacies that she tries to pass on to her own children.