Originally created 07/19/00

County awarded state aid



McCORMICK, S.C. - South Carolina's least-populated county is getting state help to improve first-grade readiness.

McCormick is the second county to get a First Steps grant. The first was Greenville, the state's most heavily populated - a possible indicator that funds to improve education in South Carolina will be equitably distributed as the Legislature makes them available.

The South Carolina First Steps Board approved the $282,772 grant for McCormick County late last week to make child care more accessible, expand parent education programs and provide transportation for those who attend them.

"An initiative focusing on early childhood development is long overdue," said Abbie Caywood, a McCormick County First Steps coordinator. "I am involved with the juvenile justice system as a volunteer arbitrator, and many of the problems of the youth I encounter have roots in their early childhood experiences."

First Steps is a state program, initiated by Gov. Jim Hodges, to help children enter first grade healthy and ready to learn. Part of the push is to make every child an efficient reader by the end of the third grade.

Mr. Hodges has tried to make an impact on children the hallmark of his administration. He made education a centerpiece of his 1998 campaign, and with his wife, Rachel, have read to schoolchildren every week since taking office.

In the First Steps program that he asked lawmakers to approve, public and private sector money is pooled, then distributed to counties, where groups determine how best to use it.

McCormick officials will staff the county's first child care center and hire a parent educator who will promote family involvement in children's early education. The county also will provide transportation so children can attend learning sessions while parents receive family literacy training.

McCormick County is a rural community of about 9,500 residents northwest of Aiken and Edgefield. It also is South Carolina's smallest school district. It ranks in the bottom 10 percent academically in a state that is last in the nation. Teachers in McCormick County start at $1,000 less per year than the statewide average.

A recent Kids Count report, prepared by a private foundation that analyzes economic conditions affecting children, said this about McCormick County pupils:

"Too many students fail to acquire the knowledge, skills, learning habits and motivation necessary to compete in the economy or contribute to society in the 21st century."

Here is why:

During the 1997-98 school year, nearly 20 percent of the pupils tested before entering first grade were not ready for school.

In 1998, 36 percent of the district's eighth-graders could not find the area of a rectangle, multiply three-digit numbers or add and subtract fractions - tasks the state Department of Education says are minimum standards.

In that same year, 46 percent of those eighth-graders were not able to decode words or comprehend what they read.

The Kids Count study linked the problems to poverty and isolation. It said that McCormick County has a high percentage of residents who can't afford to own property or pay taxes. Twelve percent are unemployed, and 23 percent are on welfare. About 18 percent of the county's households do not even have a telephone.

All of South Carolina's counties are expected to get some money to develop local First Steps programs. Only three have yet to apply for their share. They are Cherokee, Colleton and Dorchester.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.

McCormick County facts

Population: 9,606

Community: 100 percent rural

Below poverty level: 22.8 percent

Ranking: The least-populated among the state's 46 counties