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Despite solid reputation, Fort Mill shares concerns of other districts

Fort Mill schools consistently post test scores among the highest in the state, scores that vie with the best across the nation.

But scores for Fort Mill's kids living in poverty also fall in line with some state and national statistics: About 10 percent to 20 percent less of them meet South Carolina's basic test score standards on PACT -- the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test -- compared with other students in the district. All South Carolina children in grades three through eight must take the PACT standardized test annually.

Fort Mill school officials point out percentages are apt to be skewed when total numbers are smaller. Only about 14 percent to 15 percent of Fort Mill's students met assisted lunch requirements last year.

Test results for students on assisted lunch at Riverview Elementary, the district's elementary with the highest number of students on assisted lunch, indicate improvement at successive grade levels. Riverview has roughly twice as many children on assisted lunch than most other Fort Mill elementary schools.

"There is some cumulative effect," said Marty McGinn, district director of middle and secondary school education. "Research certainly is clear that kids in poverty are more likely to struggle and not perform as well. It can be due to exposure to language, social structure and many other factors."

She cited a number of strategies the district is using to assist students at all income and other levels:

• MAP -- Measures of Academic Progress -- a testing tool used to group students at their individual level;

• Math and reading specialists who work with below-basic-scoring children in the classroom;

• After-school tutorials for children scoring below basic;

• The summer Bridges program for rising fifth- and sixth-graders and eighth- and ninth-graders potentially at risk; it provides a social and academic bridge for children as they move from elementary to middle and from middle to high schools;

• LEAP Ahead at the district's family resource center provides support for parents whose children are at the primary and elementary school levels, and;

• Summer school for children in danger of not being promoted.

"Our districtwide philosophy for all children, whether or not they are in poverty or ethnic groups, is to have the lowest teacher-pupil ratio we can afford," McGinn said. "We invest a lot at the school level to ensure that happens."

Riverview kids targeted

Fort Mill's Riverview Elementary School is a Title I Target School, meaning it qualifies for additional federal money based on number of children in poverty. Last year about 40 percent of Riverview's students qualified for free- or reduced-lunch prices, said Principal Annette Chinchilla. Redistricting prompted by an enrollment freeze at Gold Hill Elementary brought that number down to about 36 percent this year, she added.

"We have very high expectations of all our students, and we have no tolerance for class disruptions," she said. "We have a goal of individual student growth. We use the MAP testing to put children in grades three through five into smaller groups at their achievement level for at least 30 minutes twice a week."

In addition to all the programs McGinn cited, Riverview also has a Friends program of adult mentors for students, as well as high school males who mentor academically at-risk students in the morning.

A Riverview data team studies learning gaps in test results. Riverview also obtained an accelerated reading program from the College of William & Mary.

"Every child can learn," Chinchilla said. "We are making sure kids who are struggling get what they need and kids who are accelerated are pushed as much as possible. We stress individual student growth, not just in academics, but in pride, character and socialization."

2007 PACT scores*

ENGLISH MATH

All students Assisted lunch All students Assisted lunch

Grades 3 5 3 5 3 5 3 5

State 85.8 77.2 79.6 66.7 78.4 77.7 69.4 68

Fort Mill

district 96 93.8 86.3 82.5 92.7 94 76.1 82.7

Riverview 90 98.6 79.3 95.8 79.3 89.3 66.3 76.9

* Percentage who met standards on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test.

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