The S.C. Department of Education says that the Orangeburg County School District has the plans needed to improve schools academically, a district official said.

The state department released its 2022 list of School Improvement Designations last month. Sixteen Orangeburg County schools were classified as needing improvement based on report card data from the 2021-22 academic year.

The state’s Office of School Transformation and State Department of Education leaders met with principals of the underperforming schools on March 10 to share strategies, OCSD Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Andress Carter-Sims said.

The state officials gave their blessing to the district’s already implemented academic recovery plan and its strategic plan as adequate tools to accomplish the goal of improving the schools.

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“We will be ensuring that the plans that we have to submit for those schools will align to our strategic plan and our academic recovery plan,” Carter-Sims said.

Carter-Sims addressed the issue recently during an Orangeburg County School District board meeting.

Trustees asked if a copy of the district’s plans will be made available to the board and was told that they will be upon completion.

OCSD Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster noted that while the school district had 16 underperforming schools, the number of schools not meeting performance standards statewide spiked from about 219 prior to COVID to about 345 after.

Foster said the district is heading in the right direction.

“It just takes time,” Foster said. “Instruction is a marathon. It is not a sprint.”

Trustee Sylvia Bruce-Stephens said COVID continues to be used as an excuse.

“We are going to have to stop using COVID as a crutch,” she said. “COVID is still here and people are still dying from it. We are going to have to adjust to COVID and move on and get our schools to where we need to be. We are going to do what we’ve got to do to get our numbers back up to par.”

Trustee Betty Pelzer also warned about the district becoming so attached to plans that there is no room for improvement or critique.

“Our children’s lives are at stake here,” Pelzer said. “I want all our schools to be doing well. I want all our children to be doing well. If it (the plan) is not working, throw it out, redo it and come up with something else. Let’s do right by our students.”

Carter-Sims said the district monitors the progress and effectiveness of its plans.

In other matters, trustees unanimously gave first reading approval to an unencumbered time policy for the district.

The State Board of Education adopted the policy in January and has provided a model policy for school boards to implement within three months.

The policy directs the principal of each elementary school to provide at least 30 minutes of unencumbered time on each regular school day to all full-time teachers teaching in grades kindergarten through fifth grade.

Unencumbered time is when teachers are afforded time that is self-directed without assigned duties or responsibilities, including direct instruction or supervision of students.

Teachers across the state have in the past raised concerns that not getting bathroom and lunch breaks or having to regularly bring work home has been fueling burnout, causing many teachers to quit.

“This is a law. We don’t have an option,” Foster told trustees.

Carter-Sims said middle and high school teachers already have the unencumbered time and the district is working through its elementary schools.

She said each school in the district was asked to create a plan and to pilot the plan and then provide the district with feedback so it can ensure the policy is enacted appropriately.

In other business:

• The district’s total revenues for the month of February were $32.5 million, with expenses of $9.2 million. Revenues exceeded expenditures by $23.3 million.

• Trustees were informed professional development will be held for all classified and certified school district staff on March 31 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

• Summer school is scheduled from June 7 through June 29 at Brookdale, Dover and Holly Hill elementary schools for pre-K through 5th grade. It will be held Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

High school locations for summer school will be Edisto High School, Cope Area Career Center, Lake Marion High and Technology Center, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High and The Technology Center for grades 6 to 12. It will be held Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the high schools and from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the career centers.

• The Summer Arts Academy will be held June 6 through June 29 at Edisto High School from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The academy is for students who have auditioned.

• Trustees unanimously gave second and final reading to a board policy stipulating that the board will work with state and federal legislative representatives, the Consortium of State School Boards Associations and other groups to develop long-term legislative programs.

• The district recognized Derek Polite of Edisto High School and the Cope Area Career Center for winning $2,000 in the South Carolina Transportation and Business Alliance and Automotive Service Excellence Competition. He also received tools and a toolbox.

• The district recognized student athlete wrestlers from Edisto High School who placed in the lower state wrestling competition and the state wrestling championship.

The last time EHS had more than five students advance to the state finals was in 2012. Seven student athletes were also state qualifiers, which has not occurred since 1998.

• The district recognized Clark Middle School and Howard Middle School Read Across America Art Winners. The school district had eight state winners in the competition.

• The district recognized Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School Algebra I and the Freshman Academy teacher Joe Chester as the Rookie Teacher for the Month of February.

• The district recognized Edisto Primary School’s Gereldene Auton, who works with special needs students and works with teachers and district therapists when needed.

• Shanika Aiken, founder of the S.A.F.E. Organization, said the organization looks to continue working with the school district to help youth.

The organization provides mentors and educational services to at-risk youth in Orangeburg and surrounding counties.

• Trustees entered into closed session to discuss personnel recommendations, personnel matters, contractual matters and a legal matter.

• The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 18 at district headquarters at 102 Founders Court. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. The meetings can be followed virtually on the school district’s website.

The meeting would normally have been held on April 12, but is being moved due to spring break.

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