(Lee County) February 8, 2006 - WIS is looking into several factors affecting a five year old's readiness to learn, including parental involvement, and why are some parents more involved than others.
Secret sharing is popular in Tamala Stuckey's new kindergarten class at Harbison-West, and so is reading. And at Lower Lee, it doesn't take long for Jan Westmoreland-Sipes to find out she has a bunch of readers too.
After reading that class has an Honors Assembly where Rashaun Scott racks up the awards, "I got the Benchmark Award. I got all kinds of awards."
The Awards assembly soon gives way to a pep rally.
Before the PACT test, the class has 68 days left, and their work is cut out for them. Last year, more than half of Lower Lee's third graders didn't meet state standards in math, 70 percent didn't meet them in science, and more than 60 percent failed to meet the standards in social studies.
The school has struggled academically for so long, the State Department of Education actually has a six-person team in the school to help increase achievement.
Bertha McCants is from the State Department, "I think parent involvement is key."
"For whatever reason, maybe you have in a more affluent district, more professional people, who it's a part of their nature to be involved with schools. You and I would probably be different kinds of parents than parents who are working two or three jobs who we assume don't care about their children, but because they're working two or three jobs, they don't have time to come out to the school to check on their children."
Rashaun Scott's mother made time. She recently went back to school and has a job, "No one really wants to take off work. It's kind of like what's more important, getting some money that hour or coming to see my son or child in the awards program."
For her, it's an easy choice, "Of course, my son is my star child."
Jeff Varn is on Lee County's school board and he says the problem of student readiness has a lot to do with parental involvement, "You've got parents that for whatever reason don't know how or what they should be doing with their children early, or can't do it. I don't know which it might be."
We asked Varn where he sends his children to school. After minutes of refusing to answer the question, he admits his girls go to Robert E. Lee Academy.
Jeff Varn: "They go to school at Lee Academy. I was on the board at Lee Academy. My wife has been a speech therapist in the public school system in Lee County since we got here 15 years ago. I knew how bad it was in Lee County; that's why I decided to run. I'm a taxpaying citizen, and I have every right to send my children to wherever I think is in their best interest."
Craig Melvin: "Your wife is in the public school system. You are on the board of Lee County Public Schools. But you say your two daughters go to private school. What type of message does that send to parents who send their children to public schools in Lee County?"
Jeff Varn: "You go Jeff, let's fix this problem."
Craig Melvin: "Is that the message it sends, you think? Or is the message, hey, these schools are bad, so bad in fact, I'm not sending my kids there."
Jeff Varn: "Well, that was certainly the issue when I ran. That was certainly the issue. Now, you don't really believe that the greatest superintendent in the world could come here and turn it around in one year, do you?"
Bebe Beasley has been teaching at the school for more than two decades. She makes about $10,000 less than she would at nearby Lower Lee Elementary, the facilities aren't state-of-the art, and the computers are old. But she's stayed nearly two decades because "our parents are very involved and it makes a difference."
Virginia Stokes became headmaster there after retiring from Bishopville High School after more than 20 years, and she says there's a big difference between Robert E. Lee and the school just a few miles away, "When we used to have PTA meetings in the public school, we didn't have many parents show up."
In contrast, she says, "When we have them here, we fill up the gym."
She thinks there's a reason for the involvement, "When you're paying for something, you're going to take better care of it."
"These folks are paying for their children's education. They're going to make sure they're learning and they're getting what they're supposed to get."
You don't have to go to Robert E. Lee to find an involved parent. Alana Scott wasn't alone at Lower Lee's Honors Assembly. And LaShanda Pettaway helps her daughter Jayla with her homework after she leaves kindergarten at Harbison-West because, "It starts at home."
Pettaway knows it, but, "It's real tough because I'm going back to school now. I'm getting my masters in health services at Webster. So I go to class two nights a week. I take a Saturday class and I take a Monday class."
So it's difficult for Pettaway to devote time to Jayla's schooling, "I'm so busy. It's kind of hard for me to get over to the school, and I work so far away."
Pettaway lives next door in a government-subsidized apartment complex. About a third of the students at Harbison-West live there. Principal Foster says, "Our free and reduced lunch is about 60 percent right now."
Reported by Craig Melvin