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Jenny Leckey, last year’s Teacher of the Year for Horry County Schools, said she was once at a place in her career where she felt literally strangled.

“After my fourth year of teaching, I felt I needed to leave the classroom … the system had beaten me down,” Leckey said Thursday night at the public forum regarding Bill S. 419, the South Carolina Career Opportunity and Access for All Act, held at Georgetown High School.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Senator Greg Hembree (R-North Myrtle Beach), said they’ve been meeting multiple times a week and “pushing hard” to work on this bill.

“We’ve worked as hard or harder on this bill than any bill I’ve ever worked on in the Senate,” Hembree said. “If we are unable to conclude our work this year, it will not be for lack of effort.

Teachers from all over the state were given the opportunity to speak to the committee in four different forums over the last month. Educators from Horry, Georgetown, Charleston, and other Lowcountry counties lined up to tell the committee they wanted smaller classes, larger raises, less standardized testing, to change the way failing schools are treated, and more.

The Facebook group SC for Ed went live online for the forum.

Leckey said she was totally encumbered by “testing and testing and more testing.”

She calculated that in her 8th grade English class, there were a total of four weeks of standardized testing that school year.

“Talk about stress and making students hate school,” Leckey said. “We worry about taking time to make up days for a storm, when we really truly should have been worried about making up a whole month of school lost due to testing.”

Her class just finished a unit on inspiring change, and urged the committee to do just that.

“I hope the words you put into that bill inspire change and create the world our students deserve,” Leckey said.

Carolina Forest Elementary kindergarten teacher Cori Shuford said she just had yet another student added to her already large class of 26 children last week.

“Class size is directly linked to performance … behavior problems,” Shuford said. “What I don’t think you understand … is that a mandate for class sizes has to come from you."

The district, she said, would push it as far as they could, as she has to have at least 30 children in her class before the district will add another kindergarten class.

Kathleen Cogland, who teaches third grade at Myrtle Beach Elementary and previously taught at Daisy Elementary, said that publishing the names of failing schools for public ridicule and embarrassment will not get the job done.

“You will push all of the future residents and passionate teachers out of that location into better towns and continue to widen the divide,” Cogland said. “If a school is failing, it’s an indicator that the community is failing.”

Cogland said that in 2017, only 36 percent of kindergarteners entered school ready to learn.

“The kids are not alright,” Cogland said.

She said she had children coming in with trauma, hunger, anxiety, and their basic needs not being met. At the beginning of this school year, she said she had three students living in a homeless shelter, two living in a hotel, and nine out of her 22 students lived in a single-parent household.

One of her previous elementary students would go home from school to take care of siblings, cook dinner for them, bathe them and get them into bed because their mother was working her third job.

Shuford said that one of her students had come to her “with things he cannot help.”

“Learning his letters and his numbers is the last thing on his mind, and it’s the last thing on my mind honestly. I feel like it’s my job to keep him safe and make sure he feels loved,” Shuford said.

Kendra Pennington, a Myrtle Beach Middle School teacher, said that education is centered on humans, not centered on politics.

“This bill screams privatization … schools being taken over by outside entities,” Pennington said. “Privatization is the politically-correct term for segregation. With the racial tension and obvious divide [already present] … that’s what would happen.”

Pennington said that a ten percent raise would not solve all the problems, “but it sure would help.”

Teachers would be much more willing to go back to school, but paying off student loans is impossible on a teacher’s salary, she said. 

Other teachers present reiterated that they are overworked, don’t have enough time for lunch and planning periods, and many said they take home work every day, taking away from time with family and other personal obligations.

“A 30-minute uninterrupted break to eat lunch and plan would be great, but I’m not worried about having time to eat my PB and J when I can’t even afford the bread,” Pennington said.

While she agreed that teacher recruitment was important, she said retainment was crucial as well.

“There’s a lot of talk about recruiting great teachers. We’re right here. You have a wonderful team of teachers … you need to focus on retaining the great teachers we already have,” Pennington said.

Pennington said she felt the Senate Education Committee was on their side, and that many teachers did not feel that way when the bill was initially pushed through the House.

Hembree said the committee understands how important this reform is.

“The stakes are high and they are urgent. We need to get our work done because there are children that are falling short that we may be able to help,” Hembree said.

Senator John Matthews (D-Orangeburg) said that the suggestions being made by the teachers were “being taken into serious consideration.”

“Whatever we wind up with will be in place for the next 30 to 40 years. We’re taking notes, we’ll take it back and I can assure you we will listen,” Matthews said.

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