- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The state Department of Education’s takeover of two long-failing schools in tiny Timmonsville represents only the second time in 18 years that the agency has used its authority under South Carolina’s accountability law.

Authorities say they welcome state intervention at rural Florence County School District 4’s elementary and middle schools but caution it won’t bring a quick turnaround.

“They can’t do it overnight,” Tom Ewart, who represents Florence County on the state Board of Education, recently told The Associated Press.

He applauded state Superintendent Molly Spearman for “stepping in and recognizing the district needs help.”

Last month, the board voted unanimously to approve Spearman’s request to declare a state of emergency at the schools. The declaration allowed the state to remove principals and assume control.

It’s a tactic Spearman’s predecessors have avoided since state control of Allendale County schools ended in 2007 with little improvement in student test scores. Despite the eight-year effort, the state’s poorest district still earned the state’s lowest report card grade.

Spearman says that, unlike in Allendale, she has the support of Florence 4’s school board members, who retain control of the high school and district office operations.

“So far, collaboration has been great,” board chairman Richard Hodges said Monday.

Parents are supportive, too, he said: “It was a little shocking at first, but now everybody has settled in. The facts are the facts. … But things are looking up.”

Brockington Elementary has received an “at risk” rating, the state’s worst, annually since 2004. In that same period, Johnson Middle also was rated at risk every year except 2009, when it posted a “below average” performance grade. The high school - and therefore the entire district - wasn’t eligible for takeover because it hasn’t been rated as at risk since 2012.

The district’s accreditation remains on probation. Its finances are a mess, too. Record-keeping is so poor that an auditing firm refused to give an opinion of the district’s financial statements, according to a state agency report.

A day after the takeover, on March 9, Florence 4’s board fired then-Superintendent Andre Boyd, who could not be reached for comment.

Hodges said his vote came down to the possibility of the district losing its accreditation, which would have meant students couldn’t receive a diploma.

“Someone had to be accountable,” he said. “You can’t blame the parents.”

The board then hired Zona Jefferson - an award-winning educator and retired superintendent of Sumter County schools - as interim superintendent at the state agency’s recommendation.

“They asked me to accept the challenge of ensuring students here have an opportunity for a good education, and I took the challenge,” she said.

Nearly all of the district’s 700 students live in poverty. Improvement will require addressing students’ educational and experience deficits while expecting them to succeed. It will also require attracting and retaining high-quality educators, said Jefferson, who plans to stay in the job less than a year.

On average, the district loses a quarter of its teachers annually.

The state’s help includes training and money. Specifics are under negotiation.

The agency notified the elementary and middle school principals last week they can teach next school year instead. An agreement with the local board is in the works on what benchmarks must be met for the emergency to be lifted, department spokesman Dino Teppara said.

As for the last attempt, the state took over Allendale County schools a year after legislators passed the 1998 Education Accountability Act.

In 2007, then-Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum said the experience showed the difficulties of raising academic achievement in a district where nearly every child lives in poverty, and a “belligerent” school board made the job even tougher.

But she said the state did succeed in making Allendale - where teachers once wondered if they’d get paid - financially stable, cleaned up the rundown schools, instilled order, filled vacancies and trained teachers.

That district’s latest report card grade is below average.

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