How are schools in poorer neighborhoods producing high achievers - - Columbia, South Carolina |

How are schools in poorer neighborhoods producing high achievers?

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Can more money buy better grades at South Carolina's public schools? The state's top education official believes a student's achievement has more to do with who's in the administration office and the classroom than the dollars spent.

The declaration comes as the Cato Institute gives the state an "F" on how the state reports school spending.

We went digging and found schools here in the Midlands are earning better grades than schools out-spending them. What are those schools doing right?

At Forest Heights Elementary, Derek Morgan rushes to make a point made in one student's journal.

"That would be this part," said Morgan, as he points out how a weather vane works. "It's so big that it turns," said Morgan.

Like the vane, his fourth grade science class is pointing in the right direction.

"I said if they see this on the PASS test they're going to nail it. That is exactly right," said Morgan.

That's because Morgan knows the student's data.

"Once you get their learning styles, their strengths and weaknesses, and you have your data that shows you where they are, you try to combine all of that to use it to your advantage," said Morgan.

It's no different at South Kilbourne Elementary where they've changed the classroom conversation.

"The old traditional style of the teacher having complete autonomy, that was not a part of South Kilbourne," said Principal Sarah Smith. "The students had just equal autonomy to what went on in the classroom."

And it all starts in the first grade, according to Smith.

"We had first graders that could communicate where they were, what they needed to do, and they would say, 'But Ms. Smith, I missed it by so and so point. I just didn't spell it out right,' or 'I didn't write in complete sentences.' Those kinds of things students knew," said Smith.

What's surprising is both of these schools are in Columbia's highest poverty areas. The average household income in Forest Heights is just over $27,000. Around South Kilbourne Elementary, it's over $34,000. Both schools recently earned "A" grades for its performance. So why does this matter?

"The difference is not the demographics or the students or the education level or the parents, it's the abilities and the competence of the adults in the system," said state Superintendent Mick Zais.

We did the math using Richland One's elementary schools per pupil expenditures. Of the schools that made an "A", three of the 11 have some of the lowest spending per students: Rosewood, Pine Grove, and Caughman Road Elementary schools. Six of the 11 "A" schools have 90 percent of students getting a free or reduced meal. At South Kilbourne Elementary last year, they spent $1,000 less per student than Carver-Lyon Elementary, who earned an "F" from the state, proving Dr. Zais' point more money doesn't equal success. Teachers not meeting the bar, Zais says, should get an improvement plan, but consider his example.

"When those teacher were put on an improvement plan, they transferred to other districts as I told you earlier, nobody called the principal of the school that they were leaving to ask about their abilities as the principal told me she said, 'Dr. Zais that's not an education problem, that's a leadership problem. I didn't hear from a superintendent, an HR director, a principal, or an assistant principal,'" said Zais.

The leadership at Forest Heights and South Kilbourne hold both teachers and students accountable. At Forest Heights, the computer lab helps struggling students.

"We're fortunate," said Dr. Frank Robinson, Forest Heights' principal. "Not only have we been doing math interventions, we've also been doing reading interventions, we're doing the level literacy intervention."

Students must also explain their work.

"At first, this was difficult, but with a lot of practice students were able to articulate better how they came about solving a problem," said math coach Margaret Knight.

At South Kilbourne, Principal Smith was in the classroom, a tradition she's taken to Gibbs Middle School, along with raising the bar.

"It's difficult to stay at the top," said Smith. "We wanted to prove that. We didn't want to live by that statement matter of fact. We wanted to prove that statement wrong, to say that we could maintain where we were."

Zais says there needs to be more collaboration between district superintendents and principals to share the best practices. 

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