Too many struggle

Kisha Lockhart checks on her son, Dondre, 13, while he does his math homework.
Kisha Lockhart checks on her son, Dondre, 13, while he does his math homework.

When 13-year old Dondre Lockhart's classmates saw him walking places with his mom, he was picked on because they didn't own a car.

Other children made fun of his large family, his behavior and his clothes, until Dondre's anger escalated and he wound up in Rebound, the alternative school for students with behavioral problems, said his mother, Kisha Lockhart.

Dondre and his siblings are among the more than 40 percent of students in Rock Hill who live in poverty.

Kisha Lockhart supports her five children with child-support payments. She never sees her income as an excuse for her children not to do well.

"I try hard for my kids to stay in school to further their education and go to college," she said. "To let them know school's important, that's the first step."

Since 2000, the percentage of students in Rock Hill on free or reduced lunch -- one of the district's measures of poverty -- has increased about 12 percent, Superintendent Lynn Moody said.

With that change came an increasing challenge. Low-income students fail to show basic proficiency on state tests at higher rates than middle-class students.

Moody has made it a top priority to find ways to bring up the scores of the district's low achievers. She has started many initiatives to make sure it happens.

No 'good excuses'

In 2006, 53.2 percent of Rock Hill's third- through eighth-grade students in poverty showed less than basic proficiency in science, compared to 21.5 percent of students who were not in poverty, according to school report cards.

Similar gaps, which range in size, exist in all four subjects on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests: English/language arts, math, science and social studies. Science is the worst.

About 40 percent of low-income students in those grades did not show proficiency in social studies in 2006. More than 30 percent did not show proficiency in math for the past four years.

The graduation rate for Rock Hill students in poverty was 54.3 percent in 2006. That's about 21 percentage points less than the graduation rate for other students.

"Failure shouldn't be an option for any student, no matter what their socioeconomic status is," Moody said. "There really aren't any good excuses, so I hope that we don't ever use the demographics of our district as an excuse for not achieving."

But working with poor students can be more challenging, Moody said.

"If a child is hungry, if a child has a medical illness, if they're sleep deprived, you can't just begin teaching. You have to first start with where they're at," she added.

In her book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," Ruby Payne said that schools are run based on the hidden rules of the middle class. That's an idea school district officials have latched on to.

"Every culture does not value the same things or expose their children to the same things or have the same needs," said Harriet Jaworowski, a district associate superintendent. "It's not that any of them are wrong, but we tend to teach school based on middle class values and middle class expectations. But when we have children who don't come from that background, we cannot assume that what we say or how we behave or what we find important is the same for them."

For example, Payne wrote that children in poverty are concerned with getting enough to eat, while middle class children are concerned with eating something that tastes good.

Luanne Kokolis, another associate superintendent in the district, said the local shift in demographics means teachers have to adjust strategies to ensure they teach in a way that fits the students.

The district is taking steps this year to make sure that happens.

New initiatives

Earlier this year, the school board gave Moody the go-ahead to spend more than $400,000 on initiatives aimed at helping low-achieving students and lowering the dropout rate.

Those ideas included hiring more teachers for Phoenix Academy, the district's alternative school, offering early morning English, math and science courses, revamping the summer school program and expanding a bridge program that helps rising ninth-graders transition into high school.

District officials will meet this week with representatives of a charter school program in California for students who otherwise would have been expelled. The district wants to learn more about the program to see if it would work here.

Academic coach positions for the high schools are being advertised.

"Each one of these we're going to try to measure and look at as we move ahead to see where we're making the biggest difference," she said.

The hope also is that by improving performance early on, students will be less likely to drop out and thus more likely to graduate from high school, Moody said.

One program already under way is Phoenix Bound, which helps older middle school students catch up and transition into high school.

Of the 47 eighth-graders in the program, 72 percent are on free or reduced lunch, said Walter Wolff, director of the Phoenix Academy.

In an update given to the school board last week, Wolff said the program gives the students an attainable goal to look forward to -- high school graduation. Many participants already have enrolled in additional courses at Phoenix to get ahead on their high school credits.

In the Bound classes, the teacher spends a few minutes each day reading aloud in the hopes of providing students with a "bank of experiences" they can relate to. Wolff said the bank serves to make up for certain experiences students might have missed.

"They at least have some knowledge base where they can attach something to," he said.

Last week, Zipporah Little was hired to lead a new districtwide Power of Mentoring program. The program will pair students whose parents, teachers or counselors think may underperform with an adult role model from the community.

Moody said in addition to assisting students, the program will help people better understand the struggles faced by those living in poverty.

'Life events ... they can't help'

Staying involved in their children's education is often difficult for parents with little or no income.

The district plans to start sending home regular updates to tell parents what their kids are doing in school and offer tips for helping apply the lessons at home.

LaQuantis Wadell, a mother of three in her 30s, said it's often difficult for low-income parents to help their kids because they are trying to earn money to support their families.

When she's working, Wadell isn't home to help her children when they need it. But when she isn't working, that creates a problem financially.

Wadell recently lost her job and is considering moving. She said she knows her children need stability, but things haven't panned out like she'd hoped in Rock Hill.

"I hate that kids take their own personal matters, their own life stories, and it kind of intercepts with their ability to get their school work done or to stay on top," she said. "But these are life events that children go through that they can't help."

Wadell helps her children with homework as much as she can. When she's faced with questions she doesn't know the answer to, she asks her niece for help.

Kisha Lockhart, Dondre's mother, said she knows that being involved is the best thing she can do for her kids.

If one of her children does not score proficient on PACT or brings home a bad grade, she immediately calls the school to see what she can do.

"The school is there to help you help the kids, but it's not there as a parent," she said. "You have to be the parent. School is there for one reason and the parent is there for another."

Both moms said educational after-school programs would be a huge help.

Measuring up

The achievement gap between low-income and middle class students is not unique to Rock Hill. It exists in districts throughout the state and the country.

In the York school district, it's often smaller. York is a much smaller district than Rock Hill, but has a significantly higher poverty rate.

Superintendent Moody said she talks to York Superintendent Russell Booker almost daily to share ideas and information.

Booker said even though his district has seen pockets of success, overall scores are not where they should be.

"You're really having to go back ... you're having to start with some of the basics: ABCs, things that they ought to know when they get to you," he said. "I'm not saying you can't get them there, but the rate in which you're going to get them there is going to be very different than those kids who come to you and already are where they need to be."

Some strategies Rock Hill uses also are used in York. District staff members serve as elementary or middle school mentors, Booker said.

York has begun using in-house testing to group students according to their understanding of the subject matter. That way, students who need more help can get it while students who are ready to move on can do so. Rock Hill has a similar testing mechanism.

Booker said the focus is on intervening in students' lives early, so they are more likely to succeed.

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