Even the physical education teacher helps with reading at A. Dorothy Hains Elementary School.
Reading is a priority and takes up the first two hours of school for every pupil at Hains. Principal Geoclyn Williams planned it that way as she works to keep test scores high and remove the school from Georgia's needs-improvement list.
"We are going to do it this year, that is for sure. I have the fire, and teachers have the fire, and we are going to do it," Ms. Williams said.
Hains is one of 279 schools in Georgia that came very close to making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, meeting standards in all but one area.
Like Hains, most schools in Georgia and South Carolina have accepted the challenge to leave no child behind. Schools on both sides of the Savannah River are making real progress.
This year, the number of Georgia schools making adequate yearly progress increased 14 percent from 2003. Fifty-six percent of South Carolina's public schools met all of their AYP targets in 2004, up from 20 percent last year.
But some still struggle, and the reasons are varied.
Angela Palm, the executive director of the Georgia School Council Institute, said it is not always a school's fault. Some have a large group of children who come from single-parent homes or communities that are impoverished or crime-ridden. Just getting the child to school can be a challenge for some districts.
"Schools have said for a long time that there are conditions that are beyond our control," Ms. Palm said "What they can control is what happens when they cross the threshold."
A lack of progress among special-needs children kept Hains Elementary on the list this year. The school met 10 of 11 categories required for success by the No Child Left Behind Act. But only 30 percent of children with disabilities passed the state's Criterion Referenced Competency Test in math and reading.
Ms. Williams is giving special attention to that group. She puts them into regular classroom settings and uses a co-teaching method, which allows one teacher to teach the lesson and another to provide extra attention to those who struggle on tests.
She also uses Saturday school to focus on improvement among children with disabilities.
"I would like to get all of them involved in the Saturday school. It is one more extra day, four more additional hours of instruction. I am still making phone calls to parents to see if I can get enough to have a second special ed teacher out here to help us out on Saturdays," she said.
In Columbia County, Harlem and Grovetown middle schools failed to post improved math scores in the special-needs subgroup, and Harlem High achieved only a 58.1 percent graduation rate. The state minimum for graduation rates is 60 percent.
To combat low test scores on the CRCT in math for special-needs pupils, Harlem Middle Principal Walker Davis said, his pupils are using a combination of an online tutorial program, after-school programs and an academic Saturday school.
"Since math is the area we got slammed on, that's the one we're paying particular attention to," he said.
Math Smart, a Web-based tutorial program developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has proven the most effective supplemental learning tool for Harlem Middle's 60 special-needs pupils, Mr. Walker said.
"We have been watching our Math Smart program very carefully, because it is computerized and it gives data back very quickly," he said. "We've seen a lot of growth in math skills with that program."
Mr. Walker said he also is looking for new ways of teaching to improve test scores.
"We're in the process of prioritizing some of the curriculum and making sure that we try to hit everything that we can," he said. "If there is something unturned, we're trying to turn it over. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we'll have a model special (education) program."
To help improve special education countywide, school officials recently asked a state Department of Education leadership facilitator to examine special-needs programs in the system and offer suggestions, Columbia County Schools Title I Director Gloria Hamilton said.
"That seems to be an area we need to address systemwide," she said. "That's an area across the state that is causing some concern."
Last year in Aiken County, Chukker Creek Elementary School was short of making adequate yearly progress goals for special-needs pupils because one pupil was absent on a test day, causing the score to suffer, said Aiken County schools Superintendent Linda Eldridge.
This year there will be some changes nationwide in the way scores for subgroups are tallied - a move the superintendent said could make things a little more realistic for some schools.
Last year, federal standards required schools to test at least 95 percent of pupils in math and reading. Schools also had to have 95 percent participation from all major subgroups of pupils, including minority and disabled youngsters. The point was to make sure schools were accountable for every child's progress and to ensure no schools exclude lower-performing pupils on test days.
But under the new policy, schools will get some leeway. As long as they average a 95 percent participation rate among pupils over two or three years, schools will pass.
In Aiken County, teachers began the first day of school more focused on the rigorous standards of the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test. The test is one of several indicators used to determine adequate yearly progress in South Carolina schools.
"You can go into any school, and it is not like the first week when we were in school," Dr. Eldridge said. "Students don't spend a week getting to know each other or talking about their summer vacation. Students are instead writing about it. We're really teaching the students now and using time more wisely."
Last year, only five schools in Aiken County made adequate yearly progress: Ridge Spring-Monetta High School and Aiken, Byrd, Hammond Hill and North Augusta elementary schools.
This year, 20 made the grade. Though that mirrored the statewide increase in schools meeting the progress goals, the jump was even better than expected, said Frank Roberson, Aiken County's associate superintendent for instruction.
"We knew the number was going to be much higher, and we're just pleased with our number for the teachers," he said. "It more accurately reflects what they are doing in the schools and provides huge momentum for the teachers."
He said elementary schools have been offering incentives of pizza, popcorn and homework passes to pupils to keep attendance high - one component that cost several Aiken County schools crucial points toward adequate yearly progress last year.
Improving adequate yearly progress has meant putting more emphasis on reading and making pupils who take the PACT realize the importance of doing well, Dr. Roberson said. He is taking it upon himself to work with middle school pupils on reading by going into schools and teaching alongside them.
"We're convinced that more than anything else, the best way to close the gap between black and white students and poor students and more wealthy students is by putting in the effort at a more concentrated rate than in the past," Dr. Roberson said. "We're trying to help students understand, emphasizing the importance of being good readers."
Reach Karen Ethridge, Donnie Fetter or Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 724-0851.