February 15, 2008

A plan for Sunset Park

This week's proposal to turn Rock Hill's Sunset Park Elementary School into an accelerated learning magnet school shows promise. But we share school board Chairman Bob Norwood's concern that the focus on gifted and talented students might overshadow the needs of lower-performing students.

In an effort to increase enrollment and boost academic achievement at the Ogden Road school, it was placed on a year-round calendar in 2004. The year-round schedule features three-week intercessions -- or vacation days -- every nine weeks, which shortens the traditional summer break.

We have long championed year-round calendars as an alternative to the outmoded schedule now followed by most schools. Long summer vacations are a relic of the days when children were needed to work on the family farm during growing season. In today's world, summer vacations serve largely as a long stretch of idle time during which students forget much of what they learn during the school year.

But the experiment hasn't worked at Sunset Park. At best, it has attracted 326 students when enrollment should be 550 students.

And, instead of improved test scores, performance has declined, keeping the school from meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards for the past three years. It is no surprise that the school also has suffered from low teacher retention and a transient student population.

Turning Sunset Park into an accelerated learning magnet, as proposed to the board by Superintendent Lynn Moody on Tuesday, might be the answer to attracting more students and improving performance levels. Moody has suggested hiring an accelerated studies coordinator to help plan the curriculum and serve as the chief community link to the school.

As a magnet school, gifted and talented students throughout the district could elect to attend. They would receive enriched instruction, special classes and more classroom time, which could mean a longer school day and classes on Saturday or during the summer.

Moody stressed, however, that specific programs would be determined only after discussions with parents in the attendance zone and various community focus groups. She said she hopes a magnet school would attract more students who are in the attendance zone now, as well as gifted students elsewhere in the district.

We like the idea of a school that could give students who aren't challenged enough by the regular school curriculum a chance to work to the peak of their abilities. A focus on music, art and physical education, which often get shortchanged, also would be welcome.

But, as Norwood notes, it is hard to envision a school for gifted and talented students that also serves the needs of lower-performing students. Caroline Massengill, president of Magnet Schools of America, said that all students would be accelerated, no matter what their starting point. But some students obviously would find it hard to keep up with gifted peers.

We assume the district will address this issue as part of the discussion about Sunset Park's future. For now, though, the proposal for a gifted and talented program there strikes us as an idea worth pursuing.

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