ALLENDALE, S.C. - Some called her the devil in a designer suit. Some said she would destroy Allendale's children.
But just as many said they were glad Inez Tenenbaum had the guts to do what no other state education superintendent in South Carolina had ever done - take over the out-of-control Allendale County School District in July 1999.
After 20 months, Mrs. Tenenbaum is still in control, and she expects to be for at least two more years. She will decide when the district can return to local control but she has not said what it will take for that to happen.
The takeover, which came six months after Mrs. Tenenbaum took office, was painful for a county that already struggled with a negative image because of its poor economy, fatherless homes and high incidence of teen-age motherhood. Now Allendale was branded by the state's claim that its children were so poorly educated that its schools had made history: They were South Carolina's worst ever.
It's hard to tell whether the hurt has healed any or whether it ever will. But state officials say they have stopped the bleeding and put the county on a slow road to recovery.
Test scores are up, some by as much as 40 points. So are teacher and pupil attendance. Big-name companies have put pocketfuls of money into Allendale's schools, which are better equipped to teach than ever. The donations also help give incentives to pupils for going to class and behaving when they get there.
But school board Chairman Charlie Cave says the district hasn't come too far since 1999.
"There's no way you can operate a school system out of a state office," he said. "No one knows what's best for Allendale better than the people at home."
They might know what is best now, but they didn't when it counted, state officials said.
Allendale County landed on a list of impaired districts in 1997 after a disturbingly high number of pupils fared poorly on standardized tests and administrators showed serious management shortcomings.
When the state intervened, students at Allendale-Fairfax High School scored 150 points lower on their SATs than other students in South Carolina, and 28 percent of kindergartners weren't ready for first grade. Only half of the students who took the state-mandated exit exam proved they knew enough to graduate from high school, test records show.
School consultants found that administrators were poor planners and didn't communicate with one another and there was little staff organization. An analysis of school board minutes showed members spent most of their time receiving information and residents' comments and very little time on policy.
"... The conditions are such that the problems cannot begin to be addressed until the perception of power, politics and personal agendas is eliminated," the consultants wrote.
Follow-up evaluations found the district had made little or no progress in fixing those problems.
There were other factors, too. Politics, some said. Or poverty. Or racial overtones.
The truth is, all of the above played a part in the deterioration of the schools. Politics, poverty and racial tension were intertwined.
Allendale has been saddled by racial strife for years, often more pervasive than the Spanish moss that grows on its trademark oaks.
In the late 1990s, it ran deep enough to divide the populace and affect decision-making on the political front, even at the school board level. By then, there were only 89 white pupils in the countywide system, compared with 1,873 blacks. And, of the 11,460 taxpayers, only 30.4 percent were white.
WHAT CHANGED WHEN the state stripped board members of their authority was the extent to which racial politics played a role. There is still a local school board, but it's a board in waiting. Decisions are made at the state level while local board members try to prepare for the day that control is handed back to them. They are a visible presence in the schools and the community. They meet. They discuss. But they cannot act.
Some parents and local leaders say that's one thing that rankles because an elected board with no authority has lost its lifeline.
Mrs. Tenenbaum met with residents one week after her agency wrested control of the long-troubled school system. She told the crowd of more than 300 that the Education Department would manage their schools for as long as needed. That night, a black woman in the crowd called Mrs. Tenenbaum - a Methodist whose husband is Jewish - a Jew preparing a "Hitler deal" for Allendale County.
"This Hitler is going to put us in the oven and bake us," said Marilyn Ostreicher, who led a small but vocal group of dissidents when the state stepped in. She called the coup "educational apartheid," similar to the racist system of government in South Africa where a minority white government ruled a predominantly black land until the early 1990s.
ANOTHER WOMAN THREATENED a black man who was with the superintendent that night, saying,"We're going to hang you, brother" as he walked to his car, escorted by local police.
But former Allendale Mayor Robbie Dix says hostility has hushed now that "most people have accepted that they're here, and we have to help them help the children."
He helps by volunteering time at the elementary school.
"If the schools don't do better, it's not because we are fighting it," he said.
Sammy Haygood, a butcher who has two sons in Allendale's schools, also says the system "is better off" under state supervision. He admittedly was skeptical at first but now sees that positive change has occurred.
Most teachers go to class prepared, he says. And most pupils know what's expected of them when they walk through the door.
Corporate largesse has helped. Colonial Life, an insurance company, recently refurbished the Allendale Elementary library and donated books. Dell Computer Corp. gave $100,000 in equipment to the Education Department, which gave it to Allendale. Other businesses also have contributed computers, and grant money has bought more.
"It's those kinds of things that will help our children become better learners and better leaders," Mr. Haygood said.
Before the state stepped in, the district had few computers, classrooms weren't wired for Internet access and there wasno technology officer to put all the components in place.
MR. DIX, THE FORMER mayor, never fought the takeover. He believes in accepting help when it's needed - something learned watching his father feed and clothe nine children on a carpenter's salary.
"Everybody knows about Allendale now," the former Methodist minister said. "Like it or not, the state takeover got us mentioned on national news. We got more headlines that even I could say grace over, but our kids are better off because of it. And we need all the help we can get."
Part of that commitment can be measured in money.
Mrs. Tenenbaum and her agency have funneled more than $3 million in public and private money into the district for computers, teacher training and after-school programs. That doesn't include the $192,000 the district paid a consultant picked by the state school superintendent to help her for six months.
The district now has an alternative school program for unruly pupils. Four homework centers are staffed with certified teachers on weekdays. And 14 specialists help teachers sharpen their skills.
Those are the kinds of things a poor district such as Allendale could never afford before and might never have gotten if the state hadn't intervened, some local officials said.
"The work being done is making a difference," said trustee Willie Priester, who has three children in Allendale's schools. "Let's stand up and cheer the advantages that it's brought us. Brooding ... doesn't change anything."
A telling example of what has changed is test scores on state-mandated exams.
LAST YEAR, 93 PERCENT of the kindergartners who took the Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery tested ready for first grade. And the district tied with three others for top scorer. A year earlier, only 27 percent had the skills they needed to move up a grade. That was the second-lowest score in South Carolina.
SAT scores also improved 40 points in 2000.
"I'm encouraged," Mrs. Tenenbaum said. "No one thought this was going to be easy. It would not have been realistic to think this job could have been done in one year - or even two or three."
When the Education Department started its work in Allendale, state teaching standards were not being met and there was little evidence of good teaching practices.
But last month, an external review team found a better learning environment in which teachers use lesson plans that are aligned with state standards.
High school English teacher Brenda Baxley says the state means well and its officials are trying to turn Allendale's schools around. But she said perpetual problems there go deeper than poor performance in schools, which might be a symptom of broader community ills - ills that must be cured before the district truly improves.
There might be no real cure for some of Allendale's problems, reduced to stark numbers by the U.S. Census Bureau:
Poverty is epidemic. Nine of every 10 pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly 36 percent of the county's residents are poor. Last year, the poverty level for a family of four was $14,150.
Of the babies born in Allendale County in 1998, more than half - 57 percent - were born to unwed mothers. Twenty-nine percent were born to mothers with less than 12 years of education.
21.5 percent of the population has less than a ninth-grade education. An additional 24.8 percent never graduated from high school. Many have trouble supporting themselves and their families.
Ms. Baxley says the state-hired consultants might have known the numbers but never grasped the humanity behind them. So their ideas didn't work.
BUT SOONER OR LATER, something has to work, she said, "because these children are worth saving."
"They came in like 14 bulls in a china shop to change things without understanding the caliber of these kids or their home environment," Ms. Baxley said. "Some of (the children) have been slapped around a few times before they make it to class."
But South Carolina, like many other states, is trying to school its children out of poverty.
Two weeks ago, the county got about $375,000 to expand 4-year-old kindergarten class and make child care cheaper. Officials also will start a roving unit to bring medical personnel, parenting counselors and supplies to needy neighborhoods. The money comes from South Carolina's First Steps, Gov. Jim Hodges' early education initiative to get children healthy and ready to learn by the time they reach first grade.
Last year, Westinghouse Savannah River Co. contributed money to the Allendale County Family Learning Center, which helps parents learn computer and literacy skills and children get extra help with math and reading. Participants also learn how to apply and interview for a job.
State officials are working with the community to develop an exit strategy. But there are stipulations: Allendale must have a board of "strong" leaders who will cooperate with the education department. The current board meets that requirement, Mrs. Tenenbaum said. Pupils also must show three straight years of academic improvement.
Later this year, the state will issue report cards for all of South Carolina's schools, and Allendale must score at least average, she said.
"We have made a good beginning on our commitment to Allendale County, and that commitment is that schoolchildren will be able to attend quality schools," the superintendent said. "That commitment is going to be honored, and we are going to do what it takes, as long as it takes."
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.
|Scores on the rebound|
Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery:
Given to kindergartners the August before they start first grade. It's an untimed test that measures vocabulary, motor skills, counting ability, hand-eye coordination and story comprehension.
1998 (Before state takeover): 70.5 percent tested ready
1999 (After state takeover): 73 percent tested ready; second-worst scoring district in the state
2000: 93 percent scored ready; tied with three other districts for top scorer
Measures reasoning skills in math and English. College officials use it to help decide which students are accepted and which ones are not. The perfect score is 1,600.
1998: Verbal, 394; math, 407; total score, 801
1999: Verbal, 380; math, 386; total score, 766
2000: Verbal, 412; math, 394; total score, 806
December 1997: Allendale County receives "highest priority for technical assistance." That designation describes districts that fall below minimum standards set by the state. A state-appointed team evaluates the district and makes extensive recommendations for approval. But Allendale receives the same mark in 1998, and a second evaluation team urges the Education Department to seize control of Allendale's schools.
July 12, 1999: An education consulting firm presents a 185-page report full of damning news. Consultants conclude that state standards are not being met and uniform criteria for assessing student performance are missing. They find a "general lack of understanding of the teacher-learning process on the part of the administrators" and a district office below standard in every function.
July 22, 1999: After 45 minutes of deliberation behind closed doors, the state Board of Education votes unanimously to assume control of daily operations of the distressed district.
July 29, 1999: State education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum holds a community meeting in Allendale, one week after her agency wrests control of the long-troubled school district. She tells the crowd of more than 300 that the Education Department will manage the county's schools for as long as necessary.