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Friday, October 26, 2007

Richland 2 succeeding as the district of choice

Posted on Fri, Oct. 26, 2007
Every morning Laura and Jacob Baker drive nearly 30 minutes in stop-and-go traffic through Northeast Richland to drop off their three children at their schools.

Although they pass three schools along the way, the family chooses to send their children to schools based on programs that best fit their needs not their home address.

“It’s tough,” Laura Baker said, “but it’s OK. I make the drive because seeing my children where I think they need to be makes it all worth it.”

For the past 16 years, Richland 2 parents have been able to choose which schools their children attend. The district opened its first magnet program in an effort to ensure their schools were diverse.

Today, it offers 15 magnet programs.
And the students are excelling.
In a state where some public schools are seen as failing, educators say Richland 2’s Choice program is an example of what works.

“It’s kind of amazing to see how far Richland 2 has come with relatively no help at all,” state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said.

Rex pushed for statewide open enrollment in public schools during the last legislative session but was defeated.
As he prepares for this year’s session, Rex is armed with a revised open enrollment bill, a new public school choice department, and Richland 2’s example.

Steve Hefner keeps a baseball cap in his office. It’s not flashy, but to the longtime Richland 2 superintendent the four words on it always illicit a fond smile “Chief of Magnet Schools.”

He earned the title in the 1990s when, as then-assistant deputy superintendent, he proposed the district’s first magnet program.

The growing district serving little more than 13,000 students at the time was in the middle of a series of heated rezoning debates as board officials looked to keep the schools racially balanced.

Richland Northeast High and Dent Middle were both about 55 percent black. Spring Valley High and E.L. Wright Middle were predominantly white, with each serving a minority population of 32 and 25 percent, respectively.

Officials redrew high school attendance lines in an effort to make the schools more diverse.
Administrators also approved the opening of The Learning Collaborative at Dent Middle, the district’s first magnet program. The school accepted students from anywhere in the district.

“It was sort of in response to (people saying) ‘don’t rezone me, give me some choices,’” Hefner said.
By the next school year, officials reported black-to-white ratios at the schools closer to the district’s average of 37 percent black.

Since then, district officials slowly have expanded the programs to 15. Six new programs were proposed this week and could begin in the fall.

Parents also can choose to send their children to any of the district’s 25 schools based on capacity. Planning officials estimate that nearly 20 percent of students attend schools outside their attendance zone.

“If we had started with (15) magnet programs out (of) the gate, our community could not have handled it,” Hefner said.
“You build block by block.”
Studies show the students have excelled.
Many students have exceeded average national scores on the SAT, the college entrance exam, according to USC studies.
This year’s national average on the reading and math portion of the SAT is 1017 and the state’s average is 984.
Students in Richland 2’s high school magnet programs averaged 1146 on the college entrance exam.
Other studies show:
Students at the Center for Inquiry and the Center for Knowledge, elementary school magnets, have scored above the national average on standardized tests.

Students at Conder Elementary, Forest Lake Elementary and Dent Middle made gains on benchmark tests from fall 2006 to spring 2007.

A 2006 district comparison of test scores showed boys and girls in the single-gender magnet school showed greater improvement in math and reading over the 2005-06 school year than students in traditional classes.

A review of the Center for Achievement magnet program earlier this year showed most students improved math and reading scores on benchmark tests. The center gives individual attention to children with learning disabilities and such differences as hearing loss, speech delay and dyslexia.

As the district expanded its magnet programs, officials realized they could place highly desirable programs in the schools to draw students.

It placed magnet programs at four of the district’s oldest schools, all along Decker Boulevard.
In the 1970s, a demographer predicted that, within the next decade, the then Forest Lake elementary school would be closed because of the aging Decker community.

But that day never came because it’s now a technology magnet school.
“Today it’s full not because kids live near Forest Lake,” Hefner said. “It’s because they come from all over our district.”

Each school along Decker is a powerhouse of magnet program offerings, drawing students to the southern end of the district where there’s less development.

Of the four schools along Decker:
Conder Elementary is an integrated arts magnet school
Forest Lake Elementary is a technology magnet school
Dent Middle School houses three magnet programs: The Learning Collaborative; TWO, the single gender academies; and Fame, a fine arts program.

Richland Northeast High houses four magnet programs: Horizon, an interdisciplinary program; Palmetto Center for the Arts; iLINK, a technology program; and a Cavplex: Convergence Media program.

Families say the Choice program is successful largely because district officials have responded to their and their children’s needs.

Dent’s TWO Academies, Hefner said, are a prime example.
About five years ago, parents asked district administrators to create a single gender magnet program for middle school children.

This year, its inaugural class of students started their freshman year of high school.
The program is among Richland 2’s most popular.
Students said they like how specific and challenging the programs are.
Jake Baker, 14, knew he had a passion for math and science. So when he heard about the Discovery program at Spring Valley High, he decided to apply to the school.

“They have the same standards as the rest of the state, but they go beyond the standards,” he said. “The classes are more in-depth than the regular classes.”

As Richland 2 continues to grow by roughly 1,200 students a year, district administrators said it becomes increasingly challenging to make sure as many students can be accommodated.

And the Choice program has suffered some hiccups, the most recent being a failed attempt to garner interest in a single gender program for high school students.

While the interest was high among parents and students at the middle school level, they balked at separating the genders in high school.

“There is a time limit and a place for some of these programs,” said Gail Harrison, the mother of three.
Over the past four years Harrison, has moved her children from private schools to Richland 2.
“I have three different, unique children in three different unique programs. It was really an answer to a prayer.”
Hefner said the district continues to field requests from parents for more specialized programs. He said administrators try to create offerings that will engage students.

“We have a community that has very high expectations of us,” he said.
State superintendent Rex applauded Richland 2’s efforts and said he’s optimistic more parents across the state will soon see the same options in their districts.

“The idea that a child must attend a school simply because of the piece of real estate their home or apartments sits on, is an antiquated idea.”

Reach Copeland at (803) 771-8485.


Anonymous said...

Bring this concept to Rock Hill!! We already have schools that are specializing in Montesorri curriculum (Sylvia Circle), Fine Arts (Northside), IB Primary Years (Rosewood), year-round calendar (Sunset Park), and IB Middle Years (Sullivan). Lets add to that Fine Arts middle and high schools, and an IB high school that offers the rest of the IB Middle Years program (which goes through 10th grade) and a full range of standard AND higher level 11th and 12th grade course (vs the watered down IB programs that our three high schools currently offer).

Is our School Board forward thinking enough?

jimvining said...

I have shared the information with the rest of the Board and hope it gets discussed at the Board Retreat on Nov. 3rd.


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