When Master Reading Teacher Sarah Catto found out the school district would be gutting its literacy program in the fall of 2016, she knew she could not stay. She took her postgraduate education, her teaching certifications and her passion for early-childhood literacy, and bolted for a job in Berkeley County.
“I’m not entirely trustful of the way literacy interventions and the literacy program are heading,” said Catto, who rejected a district offer to apply for other jobs after her position was eliminated at W.B. Goodwin Elementary. “Until they straightened that out, I felt like I needed to step away.”
Six years ago, improving literacy was the school district’s crusade. Responding to public outcry after a Post and Courier investigation found nearly one in five students entered high school reading below a fourth-grade level, the school board passed a policy in January 2010 establishing literacy as the “highest educational priority” and requiring “individualized intervention for students reading below grade level.” Then-Superintendent Nancy McGinley often said she would live or die on the literacy hill.
The 2010 policy is still on the books. But this fall, Charleston County’s hallmark literacy program, the Primary and Middle Grades Academies, will become yet another casualty of the rampant budget mismanagement that led to an $18 million shortfall in 2015. Seeking to balance next school year’s $429 million budget, the district will cut funding for literacy programs by more than one-third. The number of staff positions specializing in literacy intervention will drop from 152 to 130. Whereas all 152 specialists worked with students last year, the new total includes 60 “literacy coach” positions to work on teacher education.
Struggling students will also start taking virtual courses on iPads or computers, part of what district leaders call a “blended learning environment.” The district has not announced which software or online classes it will use.
Meanwhile, the district plans to eliminate 117 teaching positions across the county during an ongoing population boom. The maximum class size in the first grade, a crucial year for literacy intervention, will increase from 20 to 23 students.
Former school board member Gregg Meyers said he pushed for the 2010 literacy policy because he wanted to ensure it would always remain the top priority, regardless of changes in leadership. If school board members wanted to change that, they would have to vote in public and say literacy no longer mattered as much to them.
“You can save a lot of money if you quit trying to educate everybody,” Meyers said. “But reaching kids from high-poverty backgrounds is one of the biggest challenges for any school district … If they are looking to save money by cutting in literacy, it ought to be accompanied by an analysis of what is effective and what is not effective.”
The vote to slash literacy interventions came during a May 9 special meeting, when debates about raising taxes and closing Lincoln Middle-High overshadowed all else. The word “literacy” did not appear on the agenda.
The board voted 6-3 to raise commercial property taxes to help save assistant principal positions and to sock away $5 million in a dwindling reserve fund — but not to fully fund the literacy program.
Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman had been alluding to an overhaul of the literacy program for months but provided few specifics beyond cutting positions. Although early studies of the intervention program had showed strong results, the district seemed to be losing ground on literacy in recent years.
Starting in 2012, the proportion of students in grades 3-8 who were reading below grade level crept upward. By 2014, nearly one in seven had fallen behind. A district analyst crunched the numbers in 2015 and found that, while an initial group of students in an intensive First Grade Academy program had made significant progress, less intensive programs in the second and third grades got fewer results. Over time, the district had also begun to lean more heavily on lower-paid associate reading teachers, who — unlike specialized master reading teachers — did not have to be licensed to teach in South Carolina.
The study also found that schools were taking inconsistent approaches to literacy intervention, including practices like “Saturday school” and lunchtime tutoring that were not backed by academic research.
Chief Academic Officer Valerie Harrison said that even before the budget crisis, district leaders were looking to overhaul the literacy program. The new plan will focus more on addressing literacy deficits in the classroom, as opposed to pulling students out of class to work on reading.
Seeking to prepare its new literacy coaches for the fall, the district will provide a certification course over the summer via the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning. Each elementary or middle school will have a full-time or part-time literacy coach to provide professional development and teach model lessons.
“The heart of the program is the classroom teacher,” Harrison said. “We’re strengthening the core with the teachers and improving that instructional delivery.”
School Board Chair Cindy Bohn Coats said that while the district is cutting funds in one area, it is taking a “holistic approach” to increasing standards and teaching skills. The district has also recently begun offering more seats in its pre-kindergarten programs, which will follow more rigorous standards to address learning deficits that start before children enter school.
Asked if literacy was still the district’s top priority, Coats pointed to a bleak statistic: According to ACT Aspire results, just 16 percent of black students and 59 percent of white students were reading on grade level last year.
“Obviously we weren’t prioritizing it if everything we were doing wasn’t resulting in the vast majority of students learning to read,” Coats said.
Working with less
The school district can ill afford to lose teachers like Catto. A recent report found that demand for literacy specialists in South Carolina has already begun to outstrip supply — and the shortfall will only get worse.
Last school year, Goodwin Elementary had five reading specialists standing in the way of a lifetime of illiteracy for its lowest-performing students, including two master reading teachers and three associate reading teachers. Catto maxed out her case load, working with 15 students in groups of three and spending thirty minutes a day one-on-one with four more who needed intensive focus.
She loved the work, and she got results. By the time school let out on June 2, she said, about 80 percent of the students she had worked with were reading at or above grade level. Some had graduated out of the program before the school year ended.
Next year, according to the most recently available projections, Goodwin Elementary will have one full-time literacy coach and two specialists to work directly with students. One will be a literacy interventionist — the newly branded name for master reading teachers — and one will be a less-qualified literacy assistant.
Catto said she can’t imagine a person in her position handling the work alone. The school’s latest test scores showed fewer than 13 percent of students were reading on grade level in grades 3 through 5.
“If there’s just one, there’s no way she’ll be able to meet the needs of the kids at that school,” Catto said.
The school board will hold a final vote on its General Operating Fund budget after its 4 p.m. committee meetings Monday at 75 Calhoun St.
Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.