School Superintendent Mark Sale told commissioners during an Oct. 22 meeting that he provided them with information back in March about several funding requests he considered “well merited,” but returned today to talk about the top priority — hiring reading specialists to increase student reading proficiency at the elementary school level.
“Our students are making growth in reading from kindergarten to eighth grade, but they’re not making it at the rate we need them to,” Sale said, referring to state reading assessments.
Many students starting kindergarten in Swain County are not at a proficient reading level by third grade. Sale said these students definitely see a lot of growth from kindergarten to third grade, but it’s still not where they need to be as they graduate to more difficult studies in middle and high school classes.
“This is critical because when students come to us in kindergarten, about 55 to 60 percent are coming in a condition that some in at the state level consider not prepared for kindergarten,” he said.
There’s a pretty clear indicator as to why half the students are ready and the other half are not, Sale said. He said it made sense that 66 percent of students at West Swain Elementary are prepared to enter kindergarten and 45 percent at East Swain prepared for kindergarten, because more students on the west end of the county attend Bright Adventures Pre-K program compared to students on the east end.
While Bright Adventures is one of the best Pre-K programs in the state, Sale said, it’s at capacity in its current facility. Expanding or relocating the program would be an expensive and lengthy process — probably a $30 million project — but the need to increase reading scores is immediate to ensure Swain County High School graduates will be able to compete with their peers across the state. High school ACT scores are also reflecting that many students aren’t as proficient in reading and comprehension as they need to be to succeed in college.
“High school students come to high school not reaching 1,300 (on the assessment) to ensure they’ll be successful in college,” he said. “Reading instruction in high school is significantly more difficult and there’s not as much time for remedial instruction.”
But if the elementary schools had more reading specialists to work with K-3 students, Sale thinks they can get those students caught up in proficiency before they enter middle school. Otherwise, they fall behind and aren’t able to catch up.
“Our students are going to be fighting for the same jobs, the same schools and they’re fighting to get into the same colleges,” Sale said. “We don’t want them to get left behind.”
Sale asked commissioners to fund a two-and-a-half year pilot program that would allow the school system to hire five positions to specialize in reading at the elementary schools. He also asked for funding to hire two additional assistants — one at the middle school and one at the high school — to help remote learning students during the pandemic.
“We’re overwhelmed with the number of students on remote learning and it’s almost impossible to keep up with all of them,” he said.
Those seven positions will cost the county around $188,000, but County Manager Kevin King said the money was available and had been allocated for school needs during the budget process earlier in the year. He said commissioners just needed to approve using it for the specific purpose of hiring the new positions.
Commissioner Kevin Seagle said he’d like to see the Pre-K program expanded so more children could get into the program.
Sale agreed but said it would take a major construction project on the available county land above the high school to make it happen. In addition to $30 million in construction, the county would also be looking at personnel costs of $110,000 per additional Pre-K classroom.
“If we want to be able to house them all in one facility we’re going to have to have a new facility and we need one soon anyhow. Where we’re holding children is safe, warm and secure, but these are mobile units that have been there for 20 years,” he said. “If we could start with two more classrooms, we could bring another 30 students on and be at 100 percent capacity for all 4-year-olds in Swain County.”
This year’s kindergarten class has 139 students, which is a big class number, and Sale said he expects another large kindergarten class next year as well.
Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead agreed that the project would be years down the road.
“I think we need to go one step at a time and see if we can catch these students up,” he said.
The board approved the pilot program for a year and will allow Sale to bring back data next year to see if the program is leading to improvements.