Natasha Lemon didn’t realize what she had missed until she started her freshman year at the College of Charleston.
Other classmates knew things she didn’t.
She discovered that she hadn’t been exposed to many basics when she attended public school in the tiny Clarendon County town of Summerton, where she grew up.
Lemon graduated from Summerton’s Scott’s Branch High School with the class of 2005.
That year marked the 12th anniversary of a lawsuit filed in 1993 to force South Carolina to provide equal educational opportunities for children in the state’s rural, poor and, in many cases, predominantly black, school districts.
Lemon spent her entire 12 years of primary and secondary education in one of those struggling school districts, Clarendon County District One.
During that time, the lawsuit lingered in the courts while the state did little to help bring Lemon’s school, or any of the 39 other poor school districts in the lawsuit, up to the level of education provided in the state’s better-off school systems.
This month marks 20 years since the lawsuit was filed.
The state’s Supreme Court justices have spent the last five years debating a final ruling while the state continues to ignore the educational needs of another generation of children in its rural and poor schools.
Armand Derfner, a nationally known civil rights lawyer and constitutional law scholar at the Charleston School of Law, said the long debate by the state’s justices is “real unusual,” even in a state that places no limit on how long they can deliberate.
Derfner has won five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and said the nation’s high court typically hears arguments and makes rulings within its regular one-year court term. It has taken longer, but that’s unusual, he said.
Derek Black, a constitutional law professor and expert in educational equality for disadvantaged students at the University of South Carolina, said the long life of the case and the long Supreme Court deliberation are classic examples of the legal maxim “justice delayed is justice denied.”
The case is extremely complicated, with long and wide-ranging implications, and Black suspects the justices are trying hard to deliver a unanimous or near-unanimous decision.
But delay also carries impact, he said. “Every day is a day when children’s rights are being violated.”
Today, Lemon works in Charleston as a news content specialist for WCSC, Live 5 News and as an on-air personality for Bounce Around Charleston.
She said Scott’s Branch High School did help her master a very significant skill — how to learn — even if the school didn’t provide her with as wide a knowledge base as students from better-off schools.
“I applied myself and I adjusted,” Lemon said. “I had to play catch-up in a sense.”
She graduated from the college in 2009 with a communications degree, and is studying for a master of business administration degree.
Lemon said she remains bewildered over the failure of state lawmakers to provide more help for children in poor, struggling school districts: “I personally don’t understand how they can’t make up for the difference. ... We’ve left many behind.”
Steve Morrison, the Columbia attorney who had represented the rural and poor counties in the lawsuit, said in an interview last month that had no idea how much longer it will take for the state Supreme Court to hand down its ruling in the case.
“We have lost two generations of South Carolina’s K-12 children in our poorest, most isolated school districts,’ Morrison said.
“These children have not received the educational opportunity guaranteed to each child under the South Carolina constitution. ... This effectively amounts to systematic child neglect by the state of South Carolina.”
Lawyers for the state argue that South Carolina is doing all that is legally required, and already provides the poor districts with substantially more money per student than better-off districts.
Nevertheless, Clarendon District One and most of the other poor rural school districts still do not have enough money to keep up.
For example, Clarendon One has difficulty keeping teachers because its average salary of about $42,000 is $4,500 below the state average and almost $10,000 below some wealthier districts.
That lack of money also prevents Clarendon One and other poor districts from providing many advanced placement classes and other educational advantages that give college-bound students a leg up.
Morrison, who championed the civil rights issues his entire career, died unexpectedly last weekend while in New York for a Spoleto board meeting.
In his interview last month with The Post and Courier, he called equity in education “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
How they feel
Lemon was among 70 students who graduated in the 2005 class at Scott’s Branch High School. The Post and Courier attempted to contact all the graduates, and conducted interviews with 10. Most of those said they realized at the time that their school did not even have the educational resources available in many of the surrounding school districts, most of which also are among the poor school systems suing the state for more help.
But most of those interviewed said the school and its teachers offered the best they could and instilled students with a desire and ability to succeed.
Courtney Canty is one of those.
“Obviously, we were all upset about that,” she said of the school’s lacking resources.
Canty said her senior year at Scott’s Branch crystallized for her the disparity between the state’s have and have-not school districts. That’s because 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education that outlawed racial segregation in the nation’s schools.
Students did special projects to commemorate the anniversary, and the role Scott’s Branch and Clarendon County played in it. A plaque in the high school’s entrance honors the Summerton residents whose fight to get a school bus for black schoolchildren led to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The 50th anniversary of that ruling only served to emphasize for Canty the continuing lack of resources for the 97 percent black school.
She can recall feeling how she felt at the time: “It was unfair, very unfair.”
It made her wonder about the state’s leaders. “Do they care about us as much as they do students in other schools?”
Canty made up for some of Scott’s Branch’s lacking educational opportunity by taking extra classes during her senior year in the schools of other communities such as in Manning and Alcolu.
Canty wanted to be a pediatrician, but pharmacy caught her interest. She now works as a pharmacist at a CVS in High Point, N.C.
Byron Brock went to South Carolina State University after graduating from Scott’s Branch in Canty’s class. He wanted to follow up with law school, but took a job at the Clarendon County Public Works Department so he could pay back some of his student loans.
He calls the state’s lack of extra help for Scott’s Branch and other poor schools “messed up.”
There’s no question that “the school could really use that money,” he said. But he also believes the school’s small size worked to the advantage of teachers and students. Class sizes were so tiny that “teachers were better able to teach” and give students one-on-one attention.
Reality changes dreams
Martell Adams’ sickle cell anemia has put him on disability and kept him from becoming what he wanted to be, a state trooper. He took a semester of criminal justice classes at a technical school, but gave it up because of his anemia and became a truck driver.
When he was at Scott’s Branch, he said, the lack of resources was as obvious as the dated school books with missing pages. But he described the teachers as amazing. They would buy supplies out of their own pockets, and even brought homework to him on the days he was sick.
“They loved the students.”
And that’s something he loves too. He wasn’t able to be the athlete we wanted to be, but now he coaches middle school kids in football and basketball.
As with most high school graduating classes, not all of Scott’s Branch’s 2005 graduates succeeded or had it easy in their first years after school.
One, Zachary Lee Miller, is serving a five-year drug sentence and isn’t projected for release on parole until late 2015.
Kimberly Ragin has a 3-year-old son and lives with her mother. She wanted to be a basketball coach when she left Scott’s Branch, and planned to attend Allen University in Columbia, but her mom got sick so she stayed at home. She then went for an associate of arts degree in early childhood education and, now, is looking for a job. ”It’s very hard” being a single mom, she said.
Damonte Lawson fell short of his dream to become an environmental engineer in order to get a job and make some money. He’s now a technician and machine operator and mechanic at International Paper.
He remembers the financial shortcomings at Scott’s Branch. “We couldn’t afford a lot of things,” such as educational field trips and tutoring. The school had just the basic sports of football, basketball and baseball.
He credits the teachers with helping students overcome the school’s educational deficiencies.
“The teachers were tough, and made sure we learned. I don’t have any problem with being under-educated today. ... It made me stronger.”
Still, he said, no school should be lacking in resources compared to other schools in the state. “I feel like that’s wrong and they pretty much degraded us.”
What might have been
Taryn Richardson was always a strong student, and after graduating from Scott’s Branch in 2005 she went to S.C. State for bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now she’s at the University of Iowa studying rehabilitative counselling, and she wants to do autism research.
When she was at Scott’s Branch she said she didn’t know about the lawsuit to make the state provide more help for poor school districts.
“In hindsight I can see it would have been beneficial. You do need those resources. I am a witness to it,” she said. The students would have especially benefited if more guidance counsellors had been on hand to help them with career development.
If the school had that and other resources “maybe more of my classmates would have been alongside me.”
Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558