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July 2020
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Para-pros requested to combat “reading crisis”

Elementary principal says 32% leaving 1st grade at-risk



Angela Reinhardt / Photo

Hill City Elementary Principal Jennifer Halko, along with elementary principals Stephanie Hall and Marla Callahan, address the school board at a called meeting Friday, Feb. 7. The principals requested para-pros for all first grade classrooms.

At a called meeting of school administration and the school board, Hill City Elementary School Principal Jennifer Halko opened her presentation with a slide she called “shocking.” The slide referred to a “reading crisis” among students.

Halko’s presentation followed presentations from middle, junior high, and high school principals who discussed last year’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) scores and plans to improve those scores in the coming years. 

“Our test scores look okay,” said Halko, who spoke on behalf of all Pickens’ elementary principals at the meeting. “They’re pretty much right there with the state. However, when you really start looking into it, our test scores, as are the states, are hovering around that 50 percent proficient and above.”

She explained that those scores demonstrate that “about 50 percent of our students, Pickens County and statewide, are not proficient. We’re pleased to be right there with the state, but we want more for our students.”

Halko specifically discussed reading and early literacy and how they impact students’ performance.

“Early reading literacy is the key for success in all content areas,” she said. “ELA, math, science, social studies…If students are not able to read proficiently, we know those subjects are going to suffer,” she said.

Based on 2019 data Pickens had the highest ELA average it has had in five years, Halko told the board, “Still, we’re sending out 49 percent of our fourth graders [out of elementary school] not proficient in reading levels.” 

Halko, as well as Tate Elementary Principal Stephanie Hall and Harmony Elementary Principal Marla Callahan, requested the board add para-pros in every classroom at the first grade level for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year.  With paraprofessionals making an annual salary of $27,288, the total amount to staff all of the county’s 1st grade classrooms with one para-pro (17 total) would be $463,896.


Why 1st grade? 


  Citing research and local benchmark data, the principals said focusing on reading at younger grade levels will have a positive impact for students through high school.

“We believe this will greatly impact student achievement,” Halko said. “Early learning is primarily taught through small group instruction to better address individual student needs. Paraprofessionals would significantly increase the number of minutes students are actively engaged in instruction with a certified staff member,” and would also provide emotional and social support for students.  

Halko said if the system waits until third grade, the first year state assessments are given, “gaps are too large then. We have to look where children are in early literacy in kindergarten through second grades.”

She told the board that formerly Pickens County did have para-pros at the 1st grade level, and that there was a notable difference in reading readiness after the system dropped them. She said elementary schools had book sets that “we later gave to the middle school because elementary school students could no longer read them. That is not official research, but it’s a fact.”

Halko presented some five-year DIBELS data, a common assessment for K-3rd graders. The data showed that for the average of all elementary schools in Pickens County, 18 percent of kindergartners are leaving the grade at the “at-risk” level, and 32 percent are leaving 1st grade at-risk. 

“Kindergarten has a para-pro. First grade does not,” Halko said.

First through third grades showed a slight decrease down to 29 percent of students at risk, but Halko said “that’s unacceptable.” 

Following the presentation, board member Joeta Youngblood said their proposal is “a very valuable way to use money in Pickens County.” 

Board member Sue Finley called para-pros “a gift from heaven.” 

Interim Superintendent Dr. Charles Webb said the principals made a “very strong case for para-pros”

He added that in his recent discussions with the board, as well as with parents and other local and system leaders, they expressed they would like to see academics grow at a faster rate and told the board this proposal could help them reach that goal. 

“I think we have that potential,” Webb said. “I think this school system has the resources to be among the top 10 percent in the state. This would be one of the ways that would help us take a giant step towards that. The question would be, as you begin your budget deliberation, is this something this community will support with its tax funds.”