Among Fort Mill's 2,368 middle school students, those who struggle to keep up with their classmates are at risk of falling further behind.
That's because when the school board faced what it called "unprecedented" budget shortfalls over the last two years, some of the first programs cut targeted at-risk middle schoolers.
Those programs included specialists who helped students sharpen reading and math skills and diagnostic tests that measure student progress.
Teachers and administrators now are taking on extra work and rearranging the school day to reach at-risk children.
"The struggling could be affected the most," Fort Mill schools Superintendent Chuck Epps said. "That's the part that's disheartening to us as educators. It saddens me that that's where we are."
Epps said the district kept what it could but had little choice amid continuous cuts in state money. First to go, he said, were programs not mandated by law.
In middle school, that meant extra help for struggling students.
"Unfortunately this is a pattern we see over and over," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development for The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for at-risk students. "The most vulnerable students have to bear more than their fair share.
"We know that all too often a student who struggles in middle school is going to fall even farther behind in high school and be more likely to drop out."
Dropouts, Hall said, are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, receive public assistance, go to jail and raise children who drop out.
"Not having a specialist whose job it is to support instruction is not a good idea," said Aida Walqui, a program director at WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit education research group. "The breaking point is always the students who are underperforming.
"It's a severe cost to society, because these are our future citizens."
In the past, when a middle-school student in Fort Mill fell behind in reading or math, there was specialized help.
Each of the town's three campuses - Gold Hill, Springfield and Fort Mill Middle - had two specialists paid to work with groups of no more than 12 students each day for a semester.
Those students got what educators call a "double-dose" of tough lessons. A seventh-grade struggling reader, for instance, would attend his normal English class each day, but in place of a related-arts course such as chorus, he would join a class taught by the reading specialist.
"I'd spend a large amount of time with reading strategies, about three days a week," said Tracy Young, Gold Hill's former reading specialist. "We did a lot on comprehension, re-reading, breaking sentences into smaller parts."
Social studies and science texts were also a focus because those subjects require higher literacy skills, said Young, who became a math teacher at the school when the district eliminated reading specialists two years ago.
Specialists also helped students during lunch and spent time in other classrooms as a second teacher.
The program was effective, officials said.
"Ninety percent of kids showed vast improvement," Gold Hill Principal Tommy Johnston said. "They helped students recover skills that they've lost or never had."
State test scores suggest Fort Mill schools have a relatively small share of struggling students.
Of the 719 sixth-graders who took the annual state test in English-language arts last school year, 73 students - just more than 10 percent - failed. Subtract disabled students, who continue to receive specialized education, and that leaves 36 students across three schools.
Last year's seventh-grade class had more strugglers. Of 763 tested in math, 116 failed. Of those, 60 students were classified "not disabled."
Standardized tests are among several tools used to gauge student achievement.
Another method, which many educators and experts believe is more useful and accurate, involves computer-based tests that become harder or easier depending on student responses. York County's four school systems use exams called Measure of Academic Progress.
Students take them at least twice a year in varying subjects. Teachers get quick results that show whether students are progressing. The scores include a detailed analysis of where students lack skills.
The results helped teachers in Fort Mill's middle schools choose which students to recommend for work with a math or reading specialist.
"You could almost get a prescription for every child," Gold Hill Assistant Principal Christine Garvey said.
The district eliminated middle school Measure of Academic Progress testing two years ago to save roughly $30,000 annually. Fort Mill elementaries still have the Measure of Academic Progress and specialists.
"We were at the point where we were just getting into it and getting everybody trained," Garvey said.
Assistant Superintendent Marty McGinn said she's searching for a way to reinstate MAP testing.
'More with less'
On Wednesday, the bell rang at Gold Hill at 8:30 a.m.
Along the seventh-grade hall, that signaled "drop everything and read." Many students remained in their homerooms, heads in novels, while others worked on projects. Several darted to other classes for a tutoring session.
A few students dropped by Young's room for help on vexing math problems.
That's one way the school is adapting to leaner times.
Each middle school has a plan to help struggling students catch up to their peers without specialists.
The load falls mostly on teachers.
"Our teachers are going to have to pick up the slack," Springfield Principal Keith Griffin said. "We just have to do more with less. I don't know any other way to put it."
"Teachers have to be more enthusiastic," Johnston, Gold Hill's principal, said. "Teachers have to be on their feet. They have to involve parents earlier."
Teachers at all three schools arrive at work early and stay late on varying days to tutor students.
At Springfield, teachers are giving up planning time on a rotating basis to work with students in need of extra help.
Gold Hill shaved five minutes off Wednesday classes to create a 30-minute window for DEAR, or Drop Everything and Read. Students read a book of their choosing, work on assignments or re-do lessons on which they scored poorly.
Struggling learners spend the time in tutoring sessions with teachers around campus.
"We just open up our hallway," eighth-grade algebra teacher Patricia Murray said. "It really has helped."
Garvey said she's working to realign bus schedules so students who need morning or afternoon tutoring don't miss out.
Fort Mill Middle's approach is similar to Gold Hill's, Principal Greg Norton said. Teachers from both schools have been sharing strategies.
In place of MAP exams, teachers quiz students more often to develop a clearer picture of whether they're making progress.
One challenge teachers face is a growing number of students in class.
To save money, the schools couldn't hire teachers to keep up with new students. So the average class size in Fort Mill's middle schools grew from last year by one to three students, McGinn said. The number of children per class ranges from the low to high 20s.
"It's much harder," Murray said. "You don't get to give that individual attention as much."
While researchers haven't identified an ideal class size, studies suggest children learn best in classrooms with between 17 and 21 students, said Elizabeth Graue, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies class size. Learning in core subjects can suffer when attendance tops 30.
Fort Mill's middle school teachers say they're determined to succeed. Young believes they'll rise to the occasion.
"We're going to do everything in our power to help keep these kids from falling through the cracks."