Teaching Profession

Special Forces

By Alan Richard — May 07, 2003 12 min read
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South Carolina asks a lot from the standout teachers and administrators it sends to the states neediest schools. Are the expectations too high?

Teachers do not flock to places like this little town with the Scandinavian name. The distance between Denmark and the Wal-Marts of the world is too great, the pay too little, and the history too difficult for most people to make their way here.

That is why the state of South Carolina sent a team of veteran educators three years ago to help teach the children of Denmark.

They are Lemuel Patterson, Laura Buice, Gale Kulmala, and Geraldine Meyer. Together they represent the best effort of state leaders to improve what was once one of the worst schools in the state.

Part of a movement in which states are sending full-time teams to help improve schools that struggle, these four specialists are among 203 statewide who coach, instruct, and work alongside mostly inexperienced, untrained teachers.

It’s a strategy that has been used in Kentucky, North Carolina, and other states. Leaders here crafted their model based on the successes and failures of the others.

Some of Denmark-Olar Middle School’s teachers would not know what to do without the specialists, and the guidance they offer on what to teach, and how. The specialists have made a difference here: Students’ test scores are up modestly, and bigger jumps are expected this spring.

But the specialists’ enthusiasm and good ideas are not nearly enough to rescue this school on their own. Without a better and fuller strategy on the part of the state and this community, Denmark may continue to languish.

Since members of the group first came to Denmark in 1999, half the school’s 17- member faculty has departed each year, with the best teachers leaving for schools and towns less remote, where salaries and social lives are better.

In three years, this school has seen three different principals, and the school district of 1,130 students three superintendents.

In recent weeks, Denmark’s school leaders feared they might lose the specialists. Legislators in the state capital, 60 miles north in Columbia, were debating whether to cut the positions to save money. Plus, the state law that sent the specialists here also requires them at some point to leave, with the expectation that they return to their home schools.

If the specialists leave this spring, Denmark-Olar Middle School might lose the best thing it’s got going.

For now, hope abides in the Denmark Four.

Laura Buice and Gale Kulmala are longtime friends who came to Denmark together. Buice was Kulmala’s bridal matron of honor, and they first met and taught each other’s children in Williston, the town 20 miles from here that they both call home.

Their closeness is plain to see on Buice’s lapel, where she wears a pink ribbon to honor Kulmala’s battle with breast cancer.

When they heard about the specialist program, the two middle-class white women were drawn by a new challenge and the extra pay. They decided to plunge into an all- black school in a community more impoverished and rural than their own.

“People said, ‘You’re going to Denmark?’ ” recalls Buice, the teacher specialist in language arts. (The town carries the name of a family that once settled here.)

Indeed, they were coming to Denmark. It was one of several school systems where test scores were deemed so low that South Carolina’s 1998 school accountability law put them on the list for emergency help. That law created the specialists’ jobs. Now, the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 requires states to intervene more often in low- performing schools.

Denmark was one of several school systems where test scores were deemed so low that a 1998 South Carolina law put them on a list for emergency help. That law created the specialists' jobs.

Denmark-Olar sees its stock rising, and this year the school has climbed out of the lowest grade of “unsatisfactory” on the state report card to the next level, “below average.”

All the while, state leaders were discussing whether to cut the specialists from schools, like Denmark-Olar, that had jumped out of the lowest category, based on test scores.

South Carolina’s 203 teacher specialists keep their prior salaries as teachers or administrators, then receive annual supplements of almost $20,000, which is equal to half the Southeast average for teacher salaries.

Even with the extra pay, the state has never been able to find all the teacher specialists it has needed. This year, 32 slots were left vacant. Every school eligible for the specialists received at least one this year, but matching schools with specialists by grade level and academic subject can be a problem, state officials say. Sometimes, commuting distance and the reputation of a school district matter as well.

A study by the University of South Carolina’s Educational Policy Center shows that other schools with teacher specialists share Denmark’s leadership predicament.

Education professor Diane Monrad says that most specialists reported that their work was making schools better, but that other forces had powerful influence over their success—especially staff turnover and leadership.

Of the 60 schools studied last year, 44 had first- or second-year principals. Denmark- Olar Middle School had the highest teacher-turnover rate on the entire list: Fifty percent of the staff departed in 2002, while other schools didn’t fare much better.

That is why, in part, the Denmark Four, and the stability they have helped bring to their school, have been so important.

Kulmala and Buice share an office of two small adjoining rooms. Their corridor, lined with shelves of reading books for schoolchildren, is the nerve center of instruction at the 260-student middle school.

White students leave for private schools or attend schools in neighboring districts: Ninety-nine percent of Denmark’s students are black, while only 70 percent of Bamberg County’s school-age population is.

The specialists remember their first day here. The place seemed down on its luck. The walls were bare, and not a sign of student work was to be found. Teachers had no overhead projectors. “No books were checked out that year,” Buice says of the library, which she helped get up and running again.

The specialists tried not to let those hurdles keep them from doing their work. And these days, Kulmala does not even let her chemotherapy treatments get her down.

“I call her the Energizer bunny,” Buice jokes.

Kulmala often can be found out in one of the portable classrooms. There, she keeps the stash of math games and toys she has brought to the school by seeking out grants. She might also be in Letitia Dowling- Johnson’s classroom, encouraging the young teacher and Denmark-Olar High School graduate. Together they started a pull-out class Kulmala helped create for students who need extra time on math.

Principal Gwendolyn Harris, who was sent here by the state as a “principal specialist,” has been impressed with the other four educators during her first year in Denmark. The specialists help strengthen daily teaching, and help organize the curriculum and keep young teachers on track, she says.

“I just came and hopefully complemented what they were already doing,” Harris adds. “Without the specialists, this school would not be where it is now.”

The children of Denmark—in a racially segregated school system where local resources are limited by few businesses— may need more than any four people alone can give.

The students need access to some of this state’s most capable teachers. Instead, they learn from one of the lowest- paid, least-trained groups of teachers in South Carolina.

Of the 17 teachers at Denmark-Olar Middle School, only seven have earned full state certification, the principal says. Eleven are spending their first few months with children in a classroom.

Of the 17 teachers at Denmark-Olar Middle School, only seven have earned full state certification, the principal says. Eleven are new to the classroom.

Just when Denmark teachers begin to find their way as educators, they often leave for school districts where the pay is better and the towns less isolated. It’s nearly an hour’s drive to a small shopping mall or movie theater in Orangeburg. The U.S. highways that streak through Bamberg County were built for industry, but remain quiet enough in places to cross without looking.

“You’re kind of back to square one at the beginning of each year,” Buice said.

While some teachers here have real potential, others must labor to manage students’ behavior and to conduct simple classroom lessons. For some, it’s a struggle to get across their lessons clearly, even when assisted by the specialists. Still, in the area of such basic classroom skills, the specialists can have a great impact.

Buice recently helped a young teacher guide a class of 6th graders through a writing lesson. What began as a focused session editing sentences quickly deteriorated. Students began shouting out answers. One boy grew angry, and eventually stomped out of the room.

The next morning, Buice spoke with the teacher about why the lesson didn’t go as planned. The discussion was revealing. The teachers had paired up students to work on the assignment, which in turn led to chatter and finally classroom anarchy. The boy who walked out was worried about his mother, whom Buice discovered later was stationed overseas in Kuwait and awaiting orders for the then-imminent war with Iraq.

Without Buice, the teacher would have had no help with the situation. No consultant to counsel with afterward. Nobody to help her avoid such a situation in the future.

It’s why the teacher specialists are needed in Denmark, where teachers’ starting pay is often thousands of dollars below other districts within an hour’s drive—in a state that pays teachers nearly $6,000 less than the national average salary of $43,250 a year.

“I think they’ve got the right idea to send us in here,” Buice says. “We work from the ground up.”

Lemuel Patterson wears a white lab coat in his science classroom when he takes on another role the teacher specialists play at this school. He teaches, and he really gets into it.

Thank goodness he does.

His department has been cut from three teachers to two, both of whom are first- year teachers. In each of his three years at Denmark, a majority of his teachers have been rookies.

In the science lab, a big piece of metal is missing from part of a heater along the wall, an ugly sight and possibly dangerous. When Patterson writes something on the marker board for every student to see, he uses a makeshift surface that’s nothing more than a giant white plastic strip across an old crumpled chalkboard.

“That’s the best they could do,” he says, unfazed. “You give me some ice, water, sand, and chalk, I’ll teach science.”

Patterson, who moved to Denmark with his wife from the upcountry South Carolina town of Abbeville, was given a closet for an office, with only a bare light bulb to read by.

He uses the same equipment in his lab that science teachers might have used decades ago—a balance and beakers of water, books about topics such as bubonic plague, and a table covered with old state maps.

When he puts those beakers together with some good teaching and a lot of caring, the place can inspire.

Today, Patterson fetches students from a science class one by one. He and a regular teacher had selected students who needed extra attention.

He escorts a young man named Ty’rique to the lab. They scoot two metal chairs up to a table, and they talk about the upcoming state tests.

“I want you to know that you’re doing pretty good, but I want you to work a little harder,” Patterson tells Ty’rique. “Keep trying.”

Before them sits the balance and beakers of water. Patterson tells the boy about grams, the meaning of mass, and how to add up a number with decimals. Ty’rique does not seem to recognize decimals. So it’s math time.

“How would you write it down in money?”

Ty’rique can do that.

“Erase the dollar sign and write grams behind it. It’s the same thing,” Patterson urges.

Ty’rique gets it. A state science standard down pat, and a fun few minutes learning at school with someone knowledgeable and nice.

“Very good,” Patterson says, as Ty’rique finally lifts his eyes up from the floor. “Let’s roll.”

Geraldine Meyer is one of the Denmark Four, but she’s actually doing her own thing as the curriculum specialist, charged with overseeing the school’s instruction and adherence to state academic standards in every subject.

Curriculum specialist Geraldine Meyer says the success of the specialists often depends on decisions they cannot make, powers they do not have.

Her start in Denmark came two years ago, when she joined the three teacher specialists already here. An assistant principal and former English teacher in the nearby town of Edisto, Meyer applied to be a teacher specialist, not a curriculum specialist.

“I wanted to work with English teachers,” she says, but “I was not told [about the assignment] until I had been hired and told what my site would be.”

She took on the challenge anyway, and she has spent two years helping teachers learn more about what the state academic standards say and require.

Like the teacher specialists, she also observes classes and consults with teachers, but tries to link subjects together.

Meyer, who plans to leave Denmark when the school year is done, says the specialist work has its place. But she’s not fully convinced it has helped Denmark-Olar Middle School as much as it might have.

A mother of seven children and stepchildren, and the grandmother of three, Meyer says the success of the specialists often depends on decisions they cannot make, powers they do not have. “Ultimately, what really happens in a school is not really decided by us,” she says. “We assume a lot of responsibility, but we have no power.”

Denmark’s future may include some of its current teacher specialists, and some new faces as well.

The specialists were relieved to learn last month that the state legislature had decided to repeat its practice of the past couple of years: approving a budget amendment that would allow the specialists program to continue, for schools rated both unsatisfactory and below average.

District Superintendent Deborah Williams is one of those breathing a sigh of relief. She wants to keep the specialists in part because they seem to be curbing her teacher-supply problem. Only a handful of teachers have indicated they plan to leave after this year, and Williams cites that fact as proof that the specialists are persuading more teachers to stay.

Science specialist Patterson, who doesn’t know if he’ll stay next year or move back toward Abbeville, wants this community to be more involved in the life of the schools. Only a mile from this campus sit two colleges, a wonderful resource for a town of 3,800 people. Voorhees College and the two-year Denmark Technical College provide a world of opportunity, but partnerships between the schools and the colleges are modest at best.

Her health permitting, Kulmala plans to returns to Denmark next year.

Buice has found her rewards in helping young teachers grow, and plans to retire at the end of this school year. “I’m not going for the rocking chair,” she adds, explaining that she plans to co-write a book on teaching and may return to Denmark to lead occasional training sessions.

Meyer is less satisfied. Asked how much progress she believes Denmark-Olar Middle has made, the curriculum specialist holds up two fingers, and brings them together until they almost touch.

“Not squat,” she says.

The Denmark Four might offer some degree of hope, she agrees. But, according to this education veteran, building a better school will require more effort from the state, more from the community, and more help from anyone who really cares about the young people here.

“Let’s get it done,” Meyer says emphatically, noting the test scores and graduation rates here that remain too low. “Let’s get it done.”


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