State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais visited four York County schools on Monday, talking about literacy, technical education and providing incentives to teachers.
Continuing a tour of South Carolina schools, Zais visited Hunter Street Elementary and York Comprehensive High schools in the York school district in the morning. He went to Oakridge Middle and Crowders Creek Elementary schools in the Clover district in the afternoon.
“It’s important that, about once a week, I get out of that ivory tower of the Rutledge Building,” Zais said during his visit to Hunter Street.
In each case, Zais spent time listening to administrators and talking to them about their school’s performance before walking around to see what was going on in classrooms.
Zais commended Hunter Street’s administrators on the school’s “Excellent” rating on its state report card and an “A” from the federal grading system.
Principal Kevin Hood said he and his staff were continuing to work to improve in many areas, specifically in science and in writing across subject areas.
“That’s something we’re going to see in Common Core, greater integration across subject areas,” Zais said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
But Zais opposes total Common Core adoption in South Carolina. He said the state should be able to pick and choose what parts of it to adapt and leave more flexibility at the district level.
State governors and school superintendents created Common Core education standards to ensure students in every state are ready for college or careers. The standards set what students should know at every grade level. Most U.S. states, including South Carolina, voluntarily adopted the standards.
In conversations with administrators at both York schools, Zais emphasized the need to help students develop strong literacy skills.
“When kids can’t read, schools become a place of humiliation and frustration,” he said, and that leads to higher dropout rates.
Reducing drop-out rates was one of the main topics of conversation during Zais’ visit at York Comprehensive, where Principal Chris Black and Ron Roveri, director of the Technology Center, told Zais about programs they’ve designed to reduce dropout rates and increase career readiness.
Low graduation rates two years ago were a major contributing factor in York Comprehensive High’s recent federal grade of “D.”
But Zais said York is taking the right steps to prepare its students for life after graduation.
“I really like the idea of the comprehensive high school,” he said. “Not many schools in our state are like that.”
Throughout his time at the high school, Zais repeated his feelings that traditional high school education often does not serve today’s student the way it should.
In South Carolina, he said, 26 percent of adults older than 25 have a four-year college degree, while only 19 percent of jobs require a four-year degree. There are plenty of jobs available in technical fields that are going unfilled, he said, because high school students aren’t learning the necessary skills.
“We need to stop treating people who don’t get a four-year degree like second-class citizens,” he said.
At each school, Zais visited a few classrooms or observed projects.
At Hunter Street, he watched a Montessori classroom, where 4-year-old students sat quietly, independently working. He never would have been able to do that as a child, Zais said, but some children thrive in that environment.
“This is a good example of what I’ve always said,” Zais said. “One size does not always fit all.”
At York, he lamented the lack of a teacher for the cosmetology classroom, which is part of the school’s Technical Center. Black and Roveri said they would like to fill the position soon, but the district hasn’t had the money to do so.
Zais also encouraged Black and Hood to foster great teachers, saying the best thing a principal could do is provide every student with an excellent teacher. At the high school, he suggested exploring financial incentives for high-performing teachers.
That prompted Black and Superintendent Vernon Prosser to chuckle, saying they would like to if the district could afford it.
Overall, Prosser said, the visits went well.
“Our schools are making a difference in the lives of our students,” he said. “It’s nice he was able to come out and see what we’re all about.”