Sunday, May 03, 2009

Education Deficit Is Not a Learning Disability

It reads well. Has great human interest and good details. What I'm referring to is the first in a promised series of articles on functional illiteracy in Charleston County. [See Failing Our Students in Sunday's P & C.] This one addresses the plight of one student who attended Mitchell Elementary, Rivers Middle, Burke Middle, and Burke High School before dropping out. Because the article shows CCSD in such a poor light, Superintendent McGinley received an advance copy, one supposes, so that she could prepare her response [District Enhances Reading Instruction by Acting Early] for the same issue, a privilege apparently reserved for special friends of the paper's editors.

The truth is that readers never would have heard Ridge Smith's name (the student followed in the story) without the efforts of Pam Kusmider, recently chairman of the District 20 Constituent Board, not because she voted against the majority sending him on long-term suspension but because she cared enough to discover the poor reading skills that had affected his behavior. Kusmider should be lauded for her efforts to help Smith overcome his problems, but, judging from the battle she went through to do so, CCSD and McGinley probably wish they'd never heard her name.

We can all bemoan the lack of a father present in Smith's home, his grandmother's death, his mother's inability to focus on what happened to him as he moved from grade to grade. These are factors that made him a student at risk. They are also factors that no school system can remedy.

McGinley points out that's she's been Superintendent only for two years. True, and she was Chief Academic Officer for three years prior to that, during the time period when "Ridge left Mitchell Elementary School for Rivers Middle School as a seventh-grader in the fall of 2004. [. . .] He saw fights every day, and classmates brought guns to school." Wouldn't it be interesting to research McGinley's public comments regarding Rivers Middle at the time?

In her capacity as Chief Academic Officer, McGinley must have been involved in 2005 when "school officials recommended that he repeat seventh grade. His seventh-grade report card shows him being held back, and the school principal sent his mother a letter that said he would be held back.But Ridge was promoted to the eighth grade." Huh? Who made that decision?

When CCSD "moved Rivers Middle School students to the Burke High School campus in the fall of 2005, Ridge was part of the eighth-grade class involved in the change." And we all know how that one turned out--promises about A-Plus that were never fulfilled and the chaos that reigned--under McGinley's watch as Chief Academic Officer.

Ridge Smith does not have a "learning disability," although that's what officials must label his problem in order to get him assistance. To most of us, learning disability suggests that some innate defect in the student is the problem. This one is not innate. He has an education deficit. If you read between the lines of Courrege's article, it seems that at the end of fourth grade, thanks to caring and dedicated teachers, Smith had indeed made major strides towards remediation of his initial difficulties. As his fourth-grade teacher recalled, "

"More than halfway through Ridge's fourth-grade year, his reading skills ranked at an early third-grade level and his comprehension skills ranked at a late third-grade level. He could identify nouns but had trouble with verbs, adjectives, verb tense and subject-verb agreement. Wingard remembers Ridge reading fluently but struggling with comprehension.He thought Ridge's academic goals were attainable. Ridge always did what Wingard expected of him, and Wingard thought Ridge had a good, successful year. Ridge was administratively promoted to fifth grade."

What happened? Fourth grade is the point where, if reading skills have been mastered, knowledge of content begins to play a larger and larger role in comprehension. What we do know is that "He had academic plans [IEP's, as they are called] in fifth and sixth grades. Ridge was promoted to seventh grade." If the article is to be believed, Smith's reading progress stopped in the fourth grade. That lack of progress cannot be laid at the door of his grandmother's death. The buck stops with Mitchell's fifth and sixth-grade teachers, whom I suspect were inundated with students also reading at the third-grade level. How else to explain his eighth-grade science teacher's comments:
"He appeared self-conscious and uncertain as he read aloud in class, and he didn't understand what he read. Still, he didn't stand out from the class. Most of her students read on the same level as Ridge."
For sure, Burke Middle School was not an environment conducive to Smith's educational advancement. Ridge Smith is not alone in his failures and in the failure of CCSD to provide an environment that encouraged his advancement. I can well understand why his mother, a drop-out herself, assumed that "if he couldn't read, the school system would not have passed him from grade to grade." She trusted those more educated than she to do what was right.

Getting a GED is no walk in the park. Ask any student who has dropped out and attempted to get one. One hopes that Smith is motivated to do so for the sake of his son.

That brings up another point, one that the article glosses over. Smith is not married to the mother of his child. Why not? How old is she? Is she still in school? Will this sad story turn out to repeat itself with a single mother scrubbing floors and an absent father?


Robert Russell said...

Did anyone else notice that the real question this long article was supposed to ask -- 'why can't our schools teach them to read?' was only asked in the headline? Teaching reading is not rocket science, but to judge by this article and the one in today's P&C, you would think it was. One after another, CCSD employees wonder out loud, 'why can't they read?' The Rev. Mr Darby,in his opinion piece last week, lauded his wife and virtually every other elementary teacher as heroic laborers in the educational vineyard. They are, if they are teaching the children in their care to read, but they are not if they had Ridge Smith or the 20-some percent of Alice Birney middle school children who cannot read. The Superintendent's defense was little more than 'it's his fault, it's his mother's fault, it's not our fault, and besides, it won't happen again because we have a coherent curriculum.' What good is any kind of curriculum if kids can't read?

These children aren't stupid, which is why they quit school. Why play the game if you don't have the skills? It is clear from today's article about AB Middle School that reading instruction in too many parts of CCSD is totally deficient. It is deficient the first time around in 1st and 2nd grades, and it is deficient again in 7th and 8th grade when someone finally recognizes that there are swarms of adolescents who can't sound out words.

Correge's article ended on a complete note of implied tragedy. Can this boy-father do any better by his own son than his mother did by him?

Robert Russell

Underdog said...

"You learn to read and then you read to learn" is an incredible quote. These kids don't stand a chance if they don't learn to read. Shame on CCSD and shame on McGinley for pretending she's ensured students like Ridge Smith don't exist anymore. This has been going on for decades. Denial is what will cause the illiteracy epidemic for decades to come.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Babbie, for highlighting McGinley's role as CAO. She was all over those schools and I cannot believe (or can) that she tried so shamlessly to dodge responsibility. It was all her -- from the reconstitution of Rivers; Burke Middle, the campuses, the A+ program and failed idea after failed idea. and the PC lets her get away with it. oh well