By Colleen MacMillan || One in seven children who enter first grade in South Carolina “aren’t ready,” according the South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness website. “First Steps,” signed into law in 1999, defines readiness as “the state of early development that enables an individual child to engage in and fully benefit from the Kindergarten learning experiences, which provide the foundation for early child success.”

Yet while leaders paint First Steps as a “comprehensive, results-oriented statewide education initiative designed to prepare children for a healthy school experience,” an audit of the program reveals shocking inconsistencies.

The audit shows that one in every four children in South Carolina is born to a mother without a high school diploma and one in every twenty mothers is under the age of eighteen.  In this category, one in every five children is eligible for free or reduced lunch and one in every ten households has an annual income below $3,500.

First Steps identifies these demographic factors as contributing to a lack of child readiness.  Unfortunately, when it comes to effective planning – this agency’s shoelaces appear to be tied together.

Between 2008 and 2010, First Steps’ Board of Trustees drafted their “Vision 2013” plan.  This document pledges to “connect South Carolina’s high-risk children to coordinated, individualized interventions.”  A ready child is the result of “ready educators, ready communities and ready families,” the audit states.

But how can First Steps expect to ready South Carolina’s children when, after thirteen years, it can’t seem to effectively ready itself?

Contained in a three-inch thick binder, the First Steps audit presents a laundry list of ongoing internal issues that are preventing the agency from achieving its mission.   For example since 2006 it has been repeatedly suggested to First Steps that the agency adopt a “School Readiness Index” at the state and community levels.  This recommendation stems from the fact that First Steps continually falls flat on its face when attempting to clearly measure and define “success.”  This prevents the program from producing fully-representative, quantitative results.

The “Key Questions” section of an evaluation released in January of this year shows First Steps ongoing inability to provide answers to questions regarding progress.  Why?  Because according the document, “South Carolina lacks a universal school readiness measure” and needs to “modify its indicators of early success.”  It also notes the absence of “a commonly held definition of ‘high quality’ early learning.”

All of these are points brought up in recommendations as far back as 2004.

Part of the “Vision 2013” plan contained an outline for the County Partnership Showcase, better known as the Smoke and Mirrors Showcase. One of the audit’s more detailed plans, the outline suggests issuing guests a booklet that tells the story of First Steps, instead of the “very statistic heavy” annual reports.

Also included in the event summary was the idea for a Flash show featuring “documentary, photojournalist-style” photography and professional audio recordings of selected testimonial participants. The document advises storytellers, when considering their approach, to “think about how [they] can tug at someone’s heart strings, or inspire them, or maybe even make them cry.”

If the Flash video didn’t get you, maybe this will:  In FY08-09 a quarter million dollars went unaccounted for at the agency, allegedly the result of two “mistakenly charged” transactions.  That year, deeper evaluations of the organization showed huge holes in data, more inconsistent measuring and no one to take the blame.

Why were only 64 of 280 classrooms included in the 2009 evaluation? And why was it nearly two years late?  And why, when results are down, do salaries at the agency steadily rise?

“A lot of times people are afraid to eliminate an education-based agency because they’re accused of being against children, but if the children aren’t being helped then that’s a problem,” said S.C. Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson), one of thirteen legislators to request the initial audit. “Our first question should be ‘How are the kids benefitting?’”

When a program designed to prepare others for the future can’t accurately assess and communicate whether or not it is doing its job – that’s a problem.  Add the ongoing appropriation of taxpayer resources (during a period of economic strain) to the mix, and you can bet the public will question what proof the program has that it is actually advancing the future of the state’s early childhood education.

Whatever is preventing First Steps from doing its job deserves attention. In fact, failure by the agency to iron out its internal issues will only result in further scrambling and backpedaling from its leaders.  It will also empower critics – like the founding editor of this website – who have called for the agency to be eliminated altogether.