The Aiken County School District has increased the percentage of children who are academically prepared to enter first grade, but the school system continues to lag behind the state average, according to a Kids Count 2000 study released Monday.
The average number of children that were not ready to enter the first grade in South Carolina went from 28 percent in 1994 to 16 percent in 1999, according to assessments made by first-grade teachers.
In comparison, Aiken County numbers have undergone a steady decline from 38 percent in 1994 to 22 percent last year.
Although the reductions in Aiken County are a good sign, 22 percent is still too high, according to A. Baron Holmes, project director for Kids Count 2000, a national nonprofit organization funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.
"You've got a steady flow of high rates of students not being ready," Mr. Holmes said.
The Kids Count project tracks county-by-county trends in educational, social, economic and physical well-being.
Aiken County Superintendent Linda Eldridge said the school district has always lagged behind the state, but credits the improvements on the effect of full-day kindergarten, which was instituted statewide three years ago.
"Full-day kindergarten has made a major difference in the educational preparation for first grade," Dr. Eldridge said Monday. "Our school district now offers full-day for all 5-year-olds."
While Aiken County trails the state in first-grade readiness, the county's report card changes significantly in the higher grade levels, the study shows. From the third-grade through high school, Aiken County pupils consistently score higher than the state average on test scores.
For example, 35 percent of South Carolina eighth graders scored below standards on the BSAP Math test in 1998, the most recent year available. In Aiken County, only 19 percent scored below standards.
The differences between first-graders and older pupils means Aiken County children are coming into public schools more unprepared than most pupils in South Carolina but leaving the school system smarter.
"Once we get kids in our school system, we have teachers who are determined that they are going to learn and they are going to have that opportunity," Dr. Eldridge said. "So, we catch them up. I think that shows that there is something good happening."
Aiken County is doing more to address the needs of younger pupils, including reducing the teacher to pupil ratio in the early years, the superintendent said. First grade has a ratio of one teacher to 15 pupils, and the next two grade levels have a ratio of one to 20, she said.
"There have been major efforts by our school system to provide more individual attention to our students," Dr. Eldridge said.
She also credits the Success by 6 program in better preparing pupils.
"There is a readiness on the part of this school district to provide the appropriate academic focus in the early grades. That's where you have to start," Dr. Eldridge said. "You can't wait to till they are a junior in high school, and say `What can we do to catch them up?"'
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.