Memminger Elementary will open this fall in a brand new $22 million building that has nearly 200 empty seats.

The downtown school has struggled academically for years and lost the confidence of many neighborhood families. Some say that can be fixed if the school adopts the International Baccalaureate program, which they think would lead to improved student achievement, increased enrollment, and the return of its neighborhood families.

“A neighborhood school should reflect its neighborhood, and some parents have made other choices because they felt our school is not a viable choice,” said Principal Teresa Turner. “This (IB) program has worked in many schools, and it’s the best thing we can do for our partial magnet program.”

Some downtown residents fought unsuccessfully five years ago for IB at Memminger.

Now, the school and district administration have gotten behind the IB proposal and want to see it go into effect in 2013-14, but the Charleston County School Board hasn’t been as enthusiastic.

Instead of approving the proposal, the board decided two weeks ago to refer it to committee. Those groups haven’t discussed it yet, but the IB proposal again will be on the full board’s agenda tonight for action. It’s anyone’s best guess as to what will happen. This isn’t the first time the board has considered giving a school a new focus to boost academics and enrollment. Other examples include James Simons Elementary and Murray-LaSaine Elementary, both of which will offer Montessori. Efforts to give struggling neighborhood schools a theme sometimes are met with resistance. Existing parents, who often are a primarily minority population, want traditional classes, while potential parents, many of whom are white, want a change that they think will better the school.

Global studies vs. Int’l Baccalaureate

School Superintendent Nancy McGinley introduced the partial magnet concept more than five years ago as a means to increase schools’ diversity and improve achievement. Memminger Elementary was among the first schools that applied for the academic make-over.

But Memminger parents, faculty and downtown residents disagreed about what theme the school should have. Some wanted it to pursue IB, which has a good reputation, proven track record and is used by Buist Academy, which has hundreds more applications than available seats. The only other local elementary or middle school with IB is Christ Our King-Stella Maris School, a private Catholic school.

“There was a lot of interest back then,” said Chris Hitopoulos, a downtown resident who served on the school’s 2008 Neighborhood Planning Team, which was charged with figuring out a theme. “We did a community survey, and IB was the most popular choice.”

One of the perceived issues with IB was money. It costs thousands to apply for the program and train teachers in its instructional approach. IB incorporates an international perspective and encourages students to be inquisitive, critical thinkers who are engaged in their education and community. Schools go through a review process and must be approved to offer IB, and that often is a three-year process.

Buist has raised the money needed to fund its IB program, and Hitopoulos said the district wouldn’t commit to paying for it at Memminger. Parents who had children there were nervous about trying a new idea, she said.

Julie Hussey, another member of the 2008 planning team and former Memminger parent, was among those who didn’t think IB was the best choice for the school. She said it felt as if they were trying to make Memminger into Buist instead of just allowing Memminger to be its own school. Some parents and teachers didn’t feel ready for IB, and it wouldn’t have made sense to do something that lacked their buy-in, she said. Hussey and others preferred a more general global studies focus, which would have used some pieces of IB in that it would put an emphasis on increasing students’ cultural awareness and ability to think globally. Ultimately, the planning team recommended a global studies focus, and the school board signed off on that proposal.

Moving to IB

The global studies focus hasn’t resulted in what its advocates hoped. Some teachers who were trained with that theme no longer work there, and a global studies curriculum was never developed.

“It probably has not been implemented with as much fidelity as it could have,” Associate Superintendent Terri Nichols told the school board.

The school’s academic rating slipped to “at risk” this past school year, and just 108 of its 340 students live in its downtown attendance zone.

Memminger organized a new planning team this spring to talk about its global studies theme and whether any changes should be made. That group agreed that a move to IB would enhance the school and give it a needed shot in the arm.

“It’s time now,” said Tammy Canty, the school’s PTA president who has served on the 2008 and 2013 planning teams. Canty said she’s wanted the IB theme since 2008 because she believes children will be better educated.

“We’ve been trying to get it for so long,” she said.

At least two county school board members, Chris Collins and Michael Miller, said they were concerned with the lack of parent input during the most recent planning discussions. Although faculty and parents said they supported it, only 13 parents were surveyed. Collins and Miller also worried about whether the change would help students.

“If students at Memminger have not been doing well academically, how will the same students in a rigorous new academic environment raise scores?” Miller said. “Either way, there may be a group of students who are left behind as a result of them being unable to do the work.”

Turner said it wouldn’t be a successful program if the overall school improved but minority students were left behind, and the school would continue to look at the progress of each child individually.

The school is one of the district’s Renaissance Schools, which meant all faculty had to reapply for their jobs for this fall. Turner said she expects to replace about 50 percent of her staff, and her new faculty will support IB.

“It’s proven to work,” she said.

Going forward

Since the board meeting two weeks ago, Turner has conducted an expanded survey of parents and the downtown community. About 140 parents have responded, and nearly 90 percent support the IB program. Of the total roughly 330 people surveyed, 82 percent support IB.

A community meeting will be held this week to talk to parents and residents about the program. Todd Garrett, a downtown resident and county school board member, is a staunch advocate for IB at Memminger. He told his board colleagues the district is spending too much money on Memminger for it to fail, and the board needs to listen to what the community wants and provide an IB program.

“It will improve the education of students,” he said.