Spartanburg school excelling despite challenges

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Arcadia Elementary is defying the odds, and its successes have attracted the attention of federal researchers.

Nearly all of the Spartanburg school's 420 students live in poverty, and two-thirds are Hispanic - the highest percentage of any school in South Carolina. Plus, the school's numbers keep growing, as whole families crowd in with relatives. Some newly arriving children don't understand enough English to even tell staff their name.

Arcardia's children have "two or three strikes against them to begin with," acknowledges Principal Chuck Bagwell.

Yet, the school posts higher marks than many schools with far fewer challenges: 70 percent of third- through fifth-graders passed state-standardized tests last spring in reading and math, and Arcadia has met federal education goals for three consecutive years.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Education Department sent two researchers to Arcadia as part of a study on how to improve education programs for immigrant students who are learning English. Spartanburg 6 was among 20 school districts nationwide selected for the study. Its results will hopefully provide practical advice to educators nationwide, according to the federal agency. The contracted researchers spent time at Arcadia and another elementary school in the district with large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian students.

Education officials say Arcadia's success is a testament to the impact of good leadership and getting the greater community involved - not only parents, but volunteers from local colleges and area churches.

Bagwell quickly deflects credit to dedicated teachers, supportive bosses and others. But his passion for students' success is obvious. The school has become a community hub where parents feel safe to come, no matter what their immigration status is.

"I'm going to do the best I can to make sure they're taught and they're educated, whether they're legal or not," he told a reporter visiting his school. "Politicians can fuss and fight and talk about that all they want to, but when they come here, we're going to teach them, take care of them, love them and feed them and clothe them. This is my mission field."

As he walks down the school's hallway, students eagerly hold out a hand for a high-five, grinning as he calls each by name. Teachers confirm that discipline problems in class are rare.

"There's just a total commitment and climate of success there," said Spartanburg 6 Superintendent Darryl Owings. "If you're there, you feel it pretty quickly. It's a school where children are first, not just Hispanic students. Parents feel very comfortable and engaged."

One of the first things Bagwell did after arriving eight years ago was expand the school's after-school homework center.

One hour two afternoons a week for a dozen kids simply wasn't enough. Within months, he pieced together enough money and volunteers to open two hours a day Monday through Friday. The program later expanded to a full-fledged Boys & Girls Club, where students stay until 6 p.m., and most participate.

When they go home, their homework is done. Parents want to help, but they can't if they don't know the language.

The school also hosts a summer program.

But helping students exceed at Arcadia involves more than extra instructional time. The school nurse helps line up doctor and dentist appointments with those who've agreed to serve the children for less-than-cost. Donated items stock a food pantry and clothes closet. Students carry donated bookbags and school supplies. Several years ago, a local resident even donated a winter coat for every child.

To make sure students don't start school hungry, all students eat breakfast for free, and - thanks to a grant - get a piece of fruit for afternoon snack every day.

"You have to meet basic needs before education can happen," Bagwell said. "A hungry child doesn't care whether he can read or write."

The school is also where families come to have fun.

Once a month, the school hosts family movie night - often a musical or Disney film.

"They dress up like they're going to church because they've never been to the movies," Bagwell said, noting there's an educational benefit too - the movies help parents learn English.

Then there's "all-pro dad" one Saturday a month. Dads - and some moms - come with their children for a biscuit-and-orange-juice breakfast, a short parenting program, and a morning of play, whether that's board games in the cafeteria, shooting hoops in the gym or tossing around a football outside.

"It's a chance for them to spend time with their kids," Bagwell said. "The first time we did it, I didn't think it would work either, but the cafeteria was overflowing."

With only four teachers who speak Spanish, the language barrier goes both ways. Arcadia's Hispanic population has skyrocketed in the last decade, from less than 10 percent to 65 percent. Yet, it wasn't until last spring that the school got a paid Spanish interpreter.

The school's coped largely by turning students into school ambassadors.

Students apply to become one of Arcadia's Interpreting Masters. The school's bilingual teachers pick the top 15 students who best translate face-to-face and phone conversations. AIMS students get a maroon shirt and nametag, so that, during open houses and other events, parents who need an interpreter know to find a maroon shirt.

"One neat thing about our school - if you moved here from Mexico today, this is the best school to come to, because more than half the class can talk to you," Bagwell said. "It quickens their learning process because kids are helping them everywhere they go."

The school hosts afternoon parenting classes, and invites adults to log onto the school's computers to learn English through Rosetta Stone software. Books on tape help both parent and child learn to read English. Parents know to turn the page when they hear the ding, Bagwell explains.

The school has two full-time ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers, who pull students out of class to work on their English skills. Newly arrived Hispanic students work daily with the school's one ESOL teacher who speaks Spanish. The crash course teaches the basics, such as numbers, letters and colors.

Melissa Miller, a volunteer with Arcadia's Parent Teacher Organization, said she chose to send her daughter to Arcadia after moving to Spartanburg from Greenville County. Some folks encouraged her not to, she said, but she wanted her bi-racial daughter to blend in and learn about diversity.

"I know I made the perfect decision for my daughter. She adores school," Miller said earlier this year about her then-kindergartner.

She noted the learning goes both ways in a class that includes several nationalities.

"It's really, really a wonderful thing to watch. She comes home all the time teaching her daddy Spanish," Miller said. "If children don't know the obstacles placed before them, they don't know they're there. If they don't realize the fact that their Hispanic or impoverished and that's supposed to count against them, it won't. They come to school knowing they're expected to excel and behave a certain way. Let the grown-ups deal with the obstacles."


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