Our core belief is that all students benefit from being educated in a highly challenging and rigorous learning environment. We believe that all students deserve an equal chance and an equal playing field. However, out of our 84 schools in the Charleston County School District, eight schools are still rated “At-Risk” on the state report card. This has been and continues to be unacceptable. Therefore, we intend to change this reality once and for all.
A renaissance is a time of rebirth, when ideas undergo great changes and paradigms shift. The Renaissance Schools Project within CCSD targets four schools that are ready for a new beginning; a transformation of their culture, teaching, learning environment and student outcomes.
Burns, Sanders-Clyde and Memminger Elementary are currently “At-Risk.” North Charleston Elementary has been “Below Average” for three years following three “At Risk” years. While there are great teachers at each school, the team dynamics and — most importantly — the culture of the school must change to improve achievement.
Across the district, our improvement record is strong.
In five years, we have reduced the number of schools rated “Below Average” or “Unsatisfactory” by the state from 53 to 21 percent. This transformation is the result of proven strategies: high-quality early-childhood programs; a laser-focus to build literacy skills; effective, committed and energetic teachers; visionary principals; and wrap-around supports that are needed to overcome the unique challenges facing our children and families.
We are encouraged by our progress, but it is not enough. Until the number of “Below Average” or “Unsatisfactory” schools is 0, this district, under my leadership, will not rest.
President Obama recently called for states to make “high-quality early education” available to all children. This is a proven method for dramatic and positive change that our national leaders have identified as a priority. I am making it an immediate priority for CCSD and a key component of the Renaissance Schools Project. Every child must enter kindergarten at the same starting point.
Our short-term goal is to ensure that at Memminger, Burns, Sanders-Clyde and North Charleston Elementary, we serve all students in pre-kindergarten programs. A second, longer term goal will be granting Renaissance Schools Project teachers the option of placing their own children at their schools. This will lift the burden and worry of our educators needing to shop around for child care options for their families. It also will enhance peer-to-peer learning in our 4-year-old child development program.
The Renaissance Schools Project is designed to address specific realities that the district can control — setting and maintaining high expectations for all students and ensuring a quality, effective educator in each classroom in these schools. One of the key elements of the Renaissance Schools Project is to invest in teacher quality. This means investing in the professional growth of teachers to help them effectively serve, educate and meet the needs of all student learners in these schools.
The major components of the Renaissance Schools Project are threefold and built on the foundation of a positive and progressive school climate. For these schools to succeed, the culture of the school must be one of “high expectations” for both children and adults. Children will need to be accelerated more than one year in order to get caught up to grade level.
Building on the foundation of school culture, we must first identify teachers who accept the challenges and believe they can overcome them. (In short, they must have a burning desire to teach there.) Second, teachers must have an extraordinary skill set and a proven record of excellence. Finally, each team member must spend the time necessary to build their own professional tool kit and learn to operate as part of a highly effective team. This is why, if selected, these teachers will be paid for 20 days of professional development during the 2013-14 school year. They will attend at least 10 full days of training prior to the next school year, and additional sessions throughout the year.
Education majors graduate from college with the certification and credentials to become employed as teachers, just as soldiers and sailors who make it through boot camp or basic training can be deployed with an Army brigade or assigned to a Navy ship. Most are effective in their role and are adequately prepared to carry out the typical duties they are asked to perform during military service. Some end up being outstanding performers.
However, when a situation becomes highly complex, fraught with risk or uniquely challenging, the military sends in an elite squad that has been specially selected and highly trained.
The Navy SEALs are one great example of a highly competent, elite team. They are proven performers who receive rigorous training that goes far beyond the preparation required of a typical sailor. As a result of rigorous selection, personal competence and intense training, they accomplish many missions that are far beyond the reach of regular soldiers.
Think of this and apply it to our educational mission. Where we have great challenges and complex situations, we need Renaissance Schools Project teams — elite, highly trained teachers who will achieve unprecedented outcomes.
Those who are part of these teams will do whatever it takes to achieve success for every child.
These “Navy SEALs” of our teaching force will be a major catalyst behind achieving Vision 2016, and redefining the Charleston County School District as the No. 1 public school system in America.
Dr. Nancy McGinley is superintendent of the Charleston County School District.