Public schools in Aiken County are performing above average based on the level of the county’s poverty rate, said Dr. Mick Zais, the S.C. state superintendent of education.

During a visit to three Aiken County schools Monday, he also noted that the Aiken County School District’s funding is below the average for funding expectations.

In a stay of more than five hours, Zais spent time at Oakwood-Windsor Elementary School, J.D. Lever Elementary School and Aiken High School.

After attending Zais’ visits to the two elementary schools, Aiken District Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt said Zais talked with Oakwood principal Debra McCord and Lever principal Renee Mack.

“We talked about the student achievement at our schools, as well as the commitment and compassion our administrators and faculties direct to their students,” Everitt said.

She attended the last trip of the day to Aiken High, where principal Garen Cofer and other staffers spoke at length with the state superintendent.

“We’ve had a lot of success and some challenges, too,” Cofer said. “We’re really proud of the number of students to get scholarships last spring. We had 271 students graduate and 167 received some form of scholarship money. Our senior counselor, Linda Strojan, worked endlessly to get them the best bang for the buck.”

Cofer also cited solid scores on the SAT and ACT tests and that 91 percent of freshmen successfully moved up as current sophomores.

When Zais noted that the graduation rate “hurt you the most,” Cofer readily acknowledged the issue.

“We’re working on that,” he said. “But we’ve not been able to get our African-American students at the level we would like. It’s a huge challenge for us, but there are no excuses. We just have do better and knock on doors.”

Aiken High also has a large number of special needs students. That group, too, is improving, but the students need more ways to be accommodated, Cofer said. The school also needs to increase parent involvement for that group of children, he said.

Zais is enthusiastic about Career and Technology Education opportunities, pointing out that 75 percent of graduates in the public schools won’t graduate from four-year colleges.

“A four-year degree is not the only way to be successful,” Zais said. “Telling them that it is the only way is cruel and unfair. I firmly believe we need to celebrate those students who get industry certification in programs such as welding, masonry and auto technology.”

Aiken High and other high schools have strong CATE programs, Everitt said, with the Aiken County Career and Technology Center becoming much more popular in recent years.

“We’ve got culinary arts, horticulture, early childhood, automotive and much more,” Everitt said. “We need many more students, and we’re helping them become more productive.”

A successful student can make $50,000 as an automotive technician or $75,000 as a welder at the Savannah River Site, Zais said. He cited a Career Center cosmetology student in another district who, after graduation, started her own business at age 21.

Later this month, Aiken High will introduce a new program to assist older female students. They may have high goals but not have the skills or grades to achieve such lofty goals, Strojan said.

She has gotten about 30 women to serve as mentors for the 28 students who have registered so far. The mentors will bring a wide range of carers and can encourage the girls to find and work toward a venture in which they can be successful.

“That would be time spent well to build motivation,” said Zais. “If one of them identifies with one of the (mentors) that would set her on fire.”

He agreed with AHS chemistry teacher David Smith and other faculty members that tests like the state’s end-of-course exams don’t provide enough feedback to help students prepare for them.

“We’re just trying to get the end-of-course material,” Smith said. “It shouldn’t be like sticking up Fort Knox.”

Advanced Placement tests provide the kinds of questions and formatting to help students get ready for those tests. That opportunity end-of-course exams would help students.”

Mastering the skills that will be on an exam should not be a surprise, Zais said.

At the end of the meeting, he got a look at the new wing at Aiken High that will be completed during the 2013-14 year.

Ray Fleming, the Aiken School Board’s vice chairman, reiterated that he hopes Zais will see the high commitment of staffs throughout the district.

“There are things we’re doing right, but do recognize where improvement is needed,” Fleming said. “We’re taking action to address those areas.”