ALLENDALE - Every day, Principal Curtis Simmons sees pupils who are passing through the awkward years between childhood and adulthood as they make their way to class.
"The children are in the pre-adult phase, in between wanting attention and wanting to be independent," said Mr. Simmons, the new principal of Allendale-Fairfax Middle School. "They are in transition and are an interesting group of children to motivate."
But the pupils also are part of a bigger change taking place in Allendale County schools. The four public schools, nestled in the poorest county in South Carolina, are working with the guidance of Edison Alliance, a new division of a consulting group called Edison Schools Inc., based in New York.
Five years ago, the South Carolina Department of Education took over the county schools because of sagging test scores, poor academic achievement and teacher shortages - a move that was unwelcome to county educators, said Paula Harris, the county's school superintendent. The takeover was met with some hostility from teachers and other members of the education community, she said.
But Ms. Harris said the new school year and new partnership with Edison have been received in a more positive light because of the training the teachers have received and the company's decision to leave local school officials in their positions.
"We anticipate that we will have to make some changes during the year," she said. "The challenge will be to get information and making the adjustments. It will involve a learning curve for all of us."
Because of state personnel shortages, the South Carolina Department of Education was forced to seek other options for the school district, said Jim Foster, the public information director for the state Department of Education. In July, the department signed a $6.9 million contract that gives the alliance five years to improve pupil achievement.
The first year of the contract, which costs $1.7 million, is coming from unspent specialist teacher funds, Mr. Foster said. In succeeding years, the school district will redirect existing funds.
If pupil achievement doesn't show significant improvement in the next two years, the Department of Education can terminate the contract, he said.
The deck dealt to educators in the rural county always has been a challenge - the county has a low tax base and the highest birth rate to teenage mothers in the state, and 40 percent of its residents do not graduate from high school.
Edison has more experience with urban schools, but Adam Tucker, a spokesman for Edison Schools, said the group has proven ways to help teachers and pupils improve.
"Our hope is to completely turn things around in Allendale County," Mr. Tucker said. "The trend we're seeing is that states, school districts and schools are being much more aggressive and creative to find solutions to raise student achievement and to make adequate yearly progress."
School days are 12 minutes longer this year to make up for early-release days every other Tuesday when teachers have staff development training.
An assessment team will do a detailed diagnosis of the entire system in early September.
"I know Allendale has been poked and prodded and studied like crazy," Mr. Tucker said. "But this will bring data together in a way that is helpful."
Pupils will take monthly 30-question tests online that will be scored instantly, allowing pupils to track their progress and teachers to look at what areas need help.
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