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Schools: Waccamaw Intermediate gets national honors for achievement

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Waccamaw Intermediate was among 329 schools named National Blue Ribbon Schools this week by the U.S. Department of Education. The annual list of top performing schools identifies those that can serve as models for achievement.

“It’s exciting,” principal Tim Carnahan said. “There was a lot of hard work from a number of people. For someone from outside to recognize and say ‘Thank you for the hard work you’ve done,’ that’s nice to hear.”

Schools are nominated by their state education departments. They are then allowed to apply to the U.S. Department of Education. Sampit Elementary in 2005 and Browns Ferry Elementary in 2006 received Blue Ribbon awards for closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Waccamaw Intermediate, which includes grades four through six, received the award as a “high-achieving school.” Three other South Carolina schools also won the award this year.

“We’re just a team that works for kids,” Carnahan said. “It isn’t something we were trying to win. We were just trying to teach the kids the best we could.”

The award brings recognition to the school and the district. “It’s a big achievement for them, a real testimony to their hard work,” Georgetown County School Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “It’s also rather historic.”

It’s unusual for a school that’s been open for less than 10 years to win the Blue Ribbon award, Dozier said. “We’re really proud of them,” he said. “They’ve done very well in a short period of time.”

Waccamaw Intermediate opened in 2008. The award is based on five years of data from standardized tests. After learning that it was in the running for a Blue Ribbon award, the school had to await the results of this spring’s tests. It got word earlier this month confirming it was a winner. The state hasn’t made the results public, and the this year’s tests were new. “They haven’t been explained,” Carnahan said, but added that the results were “consistent.”

Students at Waccamaw Intermediate regularly outperform district and state results in the number of students who meet or exceed the state standards. They also score better than those at schools with similar demographics. At Waccamaw Intermediate, 44 percent of students come from low-income families, according to its most recent state report card.

The change in the state’s standardized tests hasn’t made an impact on Waccamaw Intermediate. “We teach kids,” Carnahan said. “Tests fall where they fall. Our goal really is to develop our best resources, which are our teachers.”

He traces the genesis of the school’s success to the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program at Waccamaw Elementary in 2007. Although the program fell victim to budget cuts during the Great Recession, teachers continued to follow the model. “A lot of our folks already had that IB training. We tried to keep the best practices from that,” Carnahan said.

One key practice is self-contained classrooms, where teachers are responsible for all the academic subjects. That’s particularly true in sixth-grade, which is a middle school grade in most schools. “Our sixth-grade is unique,” Carnahan said. “I can’t find another one to compare any data with.”

“Being self-contained, our teachers really take ownership of that child while they’re here,” he said. “They really bond with them. They meet the social needs of the kids. Those are their children wherever they are.” And that means they get to know the students’ learning styles and their families.

The school has also been helped by a low turnover rate among its teachers. Last year, none of the 32 teachers left. “We’re just now starting to see a little turnover,” with four or five new teachers this year, Carnahan said.

He can tell who is an effective teacher when he walks into a classroom. “Can they create an environment where kids enjoy coming to school? Can they build relationships with students?” he said. “If the students are only listening to you because you’re the teacher and they’re the student, that’s a very low level of productivity.”

The same is true of the relationship between principals and teachers. When Carnahan was assistant to Eve Hayes, the former principal at McDonald Elementary in Georgetown, she told him, “Tim, between 7 and 3 it’s people. Don’t stay in the office and try to do paperwork. It’s about people. Get with your parents, get with your teachers, get with your kids. From 3 on – paperwork.”

The vision Carnahan wants teachers and students to buy into is engagement. Within that framework, the school strives to have students spend 75 percent of their time reading or writing. The self-contained classroom makes that possible, as Carnahan noted when he found a fourth-grade class researching a science project one day last week. “One of our mottoes here is Engage Every Student Every Day,” he said. That’s what he did on a walk through the school with Michael Cafaro, the district’s executive director of facilities and a former principal. In a sixth-grade classroom they held an impromptu trivia contest. Later that day, he tracked some of the students down in the band room to find out if they had come up with the answers.

“You have to be visible,” he said.

On his desk is a wooden box that contains a brass spyglass. It accompanies a book, “The Spyglass,” that is a parable of faith by Richard Paul Evans. Every teacher has a copy.

“It’s not what that child looks like when they come through the door. It’s what do you see that child becoming under your teacher and your guidance and leadership,” Carnahan said. “That’s what we strive for.”

The goal is to have all students achieving at their grade level in all subjects. “We haven’t arrived yet,” Carnahan said. “When we get 100 percent, then I know we’ve arrived.”

The Blue Ribbon award is both recognition and an incentive. School and district staff will go to Washington, D.C., on Election Day to pick up the award. “They may think that we’re on top, but to stay on top and not fall off takes a lot of hard work and balancing,” Carnahan said. “We’re going to get better at what we do because I don’t have 100 percent reading and doing math on grade level. We’re not done working.”

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