by Diette Courrege - The Post and Courier

First-grade students’ reading skills would improve and high-poverty schools would employ more minority teachers with graduate degrees if a new partnership between the Charleston County School District and the College of Charleston works out the way officials say it will.

The Literacy Intern Project is the latest in the school district’s efforts to focus on literacy and ensure its students learn fundamental reading skills before going to middle and high school. An analysis prompted by The Post and Courier showed that one out of five incoming freshmen in Charleston County reads at a fourth-grade level or worse.

The new initiative targets men and racial minorities who are interested in earning a Master of Arts in teaching, but anyone interested in the program can apply. Those accepted would be assigned to a first-grade classroom in a high-poverty elementary school to work with an experienced, high-quality teacher.

While working full time as a teacher’s assistant, graduate students would gain teaching experience and hone their skills, said Brenda Nelson,

the school district’s director of community outreach. They would receive a teacher’s assistant salary, and children would benefit from having an additional teacher available to help them with reading, she added.

At night, students would take their graduate-level classes from the college, and some would be paid for by the school district with federal Title I stimulus money. The district has set aside about $350,000 in addition to money for salaries and benefits to support the project.

The program should take about two years to complete, and participants must commit to returning to the school district and teaching in a high-poverty school for three years.

It’s similar to the college’s “Call Me Mister” program, which is designed to boost the number of black male teachers in elementary and middle schools. But it’s different in that the literacy project has an internship aspect of teaching in specific schools and a commitment to eventually teach in a district school and is designed for graduate students.

“We would hope to see an increase in the number of students who are proficient in their reading skills,” Nelson said. “This gives us additional manpower for students who are most in need.”

The program is a vision of schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley. The college and district began recruiting applicants in June, and the goal is to enroll up to 25 students in the project. Some would begin as soon as this fall, and others would start in the spring. Six applications already are being processed.

Andrew Lewis, director of professional development in education for the College of Charleston and an associate professor in the college’s Department of Health and Human Performance, said the project will ensure its graduates have a better understanding of the types of students they’ll be working with and that their transition from full-time student to full-time teacher will be easier.

The college wants its graduates to have as much classroom experience as possible, and this project gives participants that opportunity, Lewis said.

“We think it will help elevate the level of educational experience that students in these schools will receive,” he said. “And it will certainly help these prospective teachers experience the day-to-day operations of a school before become a full-time teacher in charge.”