COLUMBIA — A Columbia school official is proposing the district start an innovative "community school" to help poorer students improve their academics.
Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent of elementary education, said elementary school students who qualify for free or reduced lunches would be chosen through a lottery to attend the school. The ideal size would be about 300 students from early childhood education through fifth grade, who would attend school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. all year, he said.
The classrooms would be based on the students' abilities, rather than their age, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The school district would seek the help of community social agencies to provide services for the students.
Stiepleman said the first step toward making it a reality is the passage of a $50 million bond issue going before voters in April, which would be funded by an 8-cent tax increase.
He said it will take something new to help close the achievement gap.
"To me, you can't keep doing the same thing and expect something different," he said.
Superintendent Chris Belcher called Stiepleman's proposal "intriguing."
"We're trying on all fronts to make an impact with kids that come from severe poverty," he said. "This is another way to think outside the box to try to think of a solution that impacts kids dealing with social issues and mobility."
Mary Rook, site administrator of the Title I preschool program, said she saw possibilities for the community school.
"We know research tells us that early intervention is where we get the most bang for our buck, and we also know from the work we do here at Title I preschool that we are closing the achievement gap in many ways," she said. "I think what we'd like to see is that progress and growth maintained over time."
Funding the project "gets into a sensitive area," Belcher said, if it draws money from other programs. He said the important point to him is that the district is failing its low-income families.
"There is a good argument to be made that there needs to be more resources directed toward projects like this," he said.
The estimated cost of the school is unknown because some aspects — such as preschool — could be covered by federal dollars.
"Best-case scenario, we use existing resources to try to balance it," Belcher said. "Worst-case scenario, we have to invest some more money because we're calling for a longer school day and a longer school year."