Education chief visits charter groundbreaking, Socastee-area schools

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais joined Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony for Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success charter school’s new facility before visiting three other Horry County schools.

PALS Executive Director Courtney Fancher said she asked Zais to help launch the new 45,000-square-foot school, for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Construction will begin in January on 9.1 acres on Fred Nash Boulevard, which runs parallel to U.S. 17 Bypass. The school is to be completed by Aug. 1, in time for the 2013-14 school year.

“I’m a big fan of charter schools,” Zais said. “Every child is special, but every child is different. One size does not fit all.”

Charter schools are publicly funded and open to all students, but they are able to operate with a certain amount of autonomy from state regulations. Zais said charter schools represent the ultimate in local control for parents, teachers and administrators, and that parents should have a variety of choices for their children, including magnet schools and single-gender programs.

The superintendent recounted a conversation he had with a charter school teacher, saying she earned less than she would in a traditional school but liked being unencumbered by the paperwork and strict pace of teaching she experienced in a traditional school. He said there should be freedom in the classroom, but “the price for freedom is accountability.”

Zais said there are too many directives from the federal government and the state legislature, and he currently is trying to get relief from federal testing policies. He said superintendents are welcome to write him and request relief from policies that are tying teachers’ hands.

Such processes for flexibility are cumbersome, said HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry, who requested relief from some state regulations earlier this year. She said it takes countless hours of staff time to prepare a case, and while the district found ways to prevail in its requests, they were all denied by the department of education.

One of those involved a rule that students fail a class because of their number of absences, even if they have maintained a C or above. Elsberry said there are many children in the district who perform well in class but who may have more absences because of their circumstances, such as those who work to help support their families.

Elsberry said the issue went to the state policy committee where the department of education argued vehemently for its denial, but the panel voted unanimously in favor of the district’s waiver. She said the district also had received a verbal denial on allowing students who pass a foreign language proficiency test to receive credit for a course without having to take a class.

Elsberry was one of several administrators and guests who met with Zais at Forestbrook Middle School, part of the Socastee cluster, where he also toured several classrooms. He also visited Forestbrook Elementary School and Socastee High School.