AIKEN - Almost a month ago, administrators at Aiken County's two second-year public charter schools worried that poor test scores and a low rating by the federal No Child Left Behind Act would bring about an early demise for the fledgling learning centers.
They fretted about a quick hook from Aiken County education officials, fearing the influence of some public school advocates who view charter schools as part of the home-school and voucher movement.
"If we don't do well, we're gone. There's no margin for error," Lillian Thomas, the principal at Midland Valley Preparatory Charter School in Gloverville, said before her pupils began class Aug. 20.
Now that test scores and No Child Left Behind results have reached all 31 elementary and middle schools in the county, Ms. Thomas is breathing easier.
Brenda Lloyd, the acting principal and guidance counselor at Lloyd-Kennedy Charter School in Aiken, is still worried, however.
"We're adding value to the school district." she said. "But we have to prove we're effective because nobody's going to waste their money."
South Carolina has not released 2002-03 scores on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test or named which schools have failed to meet "adequate yearly progress" standards of the tough federal accountability law, but preliminary data calculated by Frank Roberson, the associate superintendent for instruction for the Aiken County school district, shows that both charter schools failed to meet all the requirements.
Lloyd-Kennedy, which teaches first- through fifth-graders, missed the standard on math and English tests but did hit the mandated attendance and test-participation marks, according to numbers compiled by Dr. Roberson. Midland Valley Prep missed the standards in math scores and test participation. Ms. Thomas has challenged the participation result.
The charter schools have plenty of company. Instead of bringing up the rear of Aiken County's educational pack - something Ms. Thomas and Ms. Lloyd feared - they are among 29 of 31 elementary and middle schools that Dr. Roberson predicted would fail to make the federal grade.
Dr. Roberson's warning for the charter schools held a small silver lining.
"There will be an expectation, as there is for all of our schools, for progress to be made," he said. "Your actions would not be isolated. The charter schools would be subject to the same rules as the other schools."
Ms. Thomas seized on the bright side of the message. Although only 8 percent of her pupils were deemed proficient or advanced in math, missing the federal target of 15.5 percent, they blew past the 17.6 percent target for English language skills, with 28 percent deemed proficient or advanced.
She also bragged about moving about 19 percent of her 281 pupils from the bottom-of-the-barrel "below basic" category in English and math to the "basic" level. Her school teaches first- through seventh-graders.
"We're excited; we're showing progress with these kids," said Ms. Thomas. She said charter school pupils are often emotionally or academically troubled and have skill deficiencies.
Ms. Lloyd agrees, saying many of her pupils are moving from the below-basic level to basic, progress that might not be fully measured by the PACT or the No Child Left Behind ranking.
"What the state standard is is beyond what our students can achieve," she said. "We're so far behind, and we've got a lot to do and can't do it overnight. We're trying to get our students where they're not so angry, not so hungry, yet pushing that pencil so they'll continue to learn."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.