Three Charleston County schools made enough improvement to come off the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but five county schools still are on it.

The list of the state’s Palmetto Priority Schools is significant because the state could consider taking over any of them.

The three schools that improved their rating from “at risk” were Hursey Elementary, Morningside Middle and St. John’s High. The progress means the schools no longer will be part of the Palmetto Priority Schools initiative.

“I’m absolutely encouraged by the progress that (those schools) made, and I think it’s going to continue and get better,” Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley said.

Two of the five Charleston schools that are among the lowest-achieving in the state, Burke High and North Charleston High, faced the possibility of state takeover last summer, but the state Board of Education allowed the school district to maintain control and continue improvement efforts.

Both schools still are on the state’s priority list, as well as three others locally: Burns Elementary, Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts School and Stall High. No Berkeley or Dorchester County schools were in this group.

The improvement was based on schools’ ratings on the 2012 report card, which was released in November and evaluated schools’ performance for the 2011-12 school year. Report card ratings and test scores for the 2012-13 school year will be released this fall.

Changing accountability

None of the 20 Palmetto Priority Schools in 2013-1024 will have to meet with the state board this summer. State officials say they’re trying to be more consistent with state law on holding schools accountable for performance, and they’re hopeful new legislation will be in place next year to create a turnaround district for the state’s failing schools.

“This is positioning schools to move into a statewide district whose sole purpose is to serve and turnaround persistently low-performing schools,” said Jay W. Ragley, the state Department of Education’s deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs.

The state created the Palmetto Priority Schools project in 2007 in lieu of taking over 16 “at-risk” schools that had failed to make expected progress. Schools rated “at risk” for three consecutive years have been added to the project since then, and the state provided extra funding and training for some.

The state didn’t add any schools to that initiative this year because it plans to discontinue the program after the 2013-14 school year. Once report cards are released in November, low-performing schools that would’ve qualified for the project instead will receive visits from external review teams, which is what state law requires, Ragley said.

The teams review documents, interview school staff and observe school procedures and classrooms, and the intention is to highlight problem areas and recommend ways to improve.

McGinley said she’s fine with the state doing away with the Palmetto Priority Schools project, which required principals to make trips to Columbia to meet with state officials. The review teams are helpful in pointing out what schools are doing wrong, she said.

“I like my principals in the building, and it’s important that they’re there as much as possible,” she said. When principals had to make trips to the state department, “there’s a whole day shot where the school doesn’t have its instructional leader.”

Expecting results

Of the preliminary results McGinley said she’s seen, she’s hopeful North Charleston High and Stall High will move up from “at risk.” Both, as well as Morningside Middle, St. John’s High and Burke High, have benefitted from receiving federal School Improvement Grants, which infused the schools with hundreds of thousands of dollars to help boost students’ performance.

The $2.3 million, three-year grant that was split between North Charleston High and Morningside Middle will run out in September, which means the schools could lose as many as a combined 12 staff members.

District officials have asked permission to spread some of the remaining funds throughout the 2013-14 school year, and they’ve also asked the school board to give each school $400,000 for 2013-14 to keep some of those 12 staff. Continuing contract teachers could be placed at other schools in the district.

“We are stepping the schools down in order to try to sustain what are the critical elements (of the grant),” McGinley said.

McGinley said it’s too early to say whether Burke High is moving in the right direction, and she wants to allow the school to finish its School Improvement Grant before considering major changes.

“We don’t ever want to be back before the state board for that reason,” she said.

Both Burns Elementary and Sanders-Clyde are part of the district’s four Renaissance schools initiative, which meant all educators had to reapply for their jobs, and those rehired will have an extended school year with more training and team-building.


Because of incorrect information provided to The Post and Courier, previous versions of this story incorrectly stated the number of Palmetto Primary Schools for 2013-2014.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.