Zais wants to create district for failing schools

The Associated PressJuly 11, 2012 

— South Carolina schools superintendent Mick Zais on Wednesday proposed creating a new statewide district for failing schools, saying current options under state law for helping such schools have proved unsuccessful or ineffective.

Zais said he wants to remove failing schools from the control of local school boards and administrators whom he says have failed the students.

“This turnaround district will give parents and students trapped in a failing school the opportunity to transform their school,” Zais told the State Board of Education. “They won’t have to wait for new leadership in their district office or wait for the election of new school. They will be empowered to make the changes needed to meet their unique requirements.”

The comments came before the board decided the fate of seven schools that have performed in the bottom tier of state rankings for eight consecutive years. State law allows three options: providing more training and monetary support, replacing the school’s principal or taking it over.

In each case, at Zais’ recommendation, the board voted to approve the school’s improvement plans and continue to provide assistance. That can include money for after-school tutoring, summer school and other drop-out prevention programs.

Zais called it the only practical option, but also the least-effective.

“South Carolina taxpayers have provided millions of dollars in technical assistance to these schools with little or nothing to show for it,” said Zais, a Republican who took the state education department’s helm in January 2011.

He said he won’t tolerate excuses of poverty because there are too many examples of schools elsewhere in the state with similar demographics succeeding. Success comes down to effective principals and excellent teachers, Zais said.

However, he said, principals installed by the state are unlikely to succeed because they’d lack hiring and firing powers and may lack district support.

The state has not seized control of a school since 1999, when all of rural Allendale County’s schools were taken over amid resentment from local officials who made progress more difficult. Control returned in 2006, and the districts’ students continue to underperform. Allendale-Fairfax Middle was among the schools before the board Wednesday.

The meeting marked the first time since 2006 that a school was threatened with a state takeover. That same school was back on Wednesday: Burke Middle/High in downtown Charleston.

The others schools were North Charleston High in Charleston County, Ridgeland Middle in Jasper County, Lee Central Middle in Lee County, and Heyward Gibbes Middle and W.A. Perry Middle in Richland 1.

Zais added a caveat to four schools’ approved plans – a provision already in the others’. In order to get the money, the districts must develop a system in which teachers’ salaries and continued employment at the schools depend on their effectiveness in the classroom.

The Charleston County schools also must create specific goals to meet. The other schools’ plans already included measurements beyond simply improving test scores, Zais said.

Zais said he wished he could recommend organizing the schools into a new district that operates similar to charter schools, which must meet all state and federal education accountability laws but are given greater flexibility and controlled by a board of parents, teachers and community leaders.

He said similar programs in Louisiana and Tennessee are proving effective, and he will work to push the idea through the Legislature next session. Details will be worked out then, he said.

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