The top state school rating is “excellent,” but downtown Burke High is celebrating “average.”

Breaking down Burke’s report card rating

High schools’ report card ratings are based on five criteria: longitudinal exit exam pass rate (20 percent); first-attempt exit exam pass rate (20 percent); percentage of passing scores on end-of-course tests (20 percent); on-time graduation rate (30 percent); and five-year graduation rate (10 percent). Each school receives a certain amount of points depending on its performance, and those are weighted to determine a school’s index score, which is translated into a rating.

Here’s a look at how Burke High did in each of those categories in 2013 compared with the previous year.

2012 2013

Longitudinal exit exam 71.7 percent 87.1 percent

First-attempt exit exam 60.4 percent 58.2 percent

Passing end-of-course tests 57.4 percent 54.5 percent

Graduation rate 54.3 percent 70.3 percent

Five-year graduation rate 61.4 percent 60.6 percent

Absolute index score 2 2.7

A school’s index score determines its rating.

At-risk schools are 2.31 or lower.

Below average schools are 2.32 to 2.64.

Average schools are 2.65 to 3.17.

Good schools are 3.18 to 3.39.

Excellent schools are 3.4 and above.

Source: S.C. Education Oversight Committee

The persistently failing school posted its best-ever rating on its recent state report card, and that was cause for a schoolwide pep rally.

“Our kids need that,” Principal Maurice Cannon said. “They need to hear, ‘Hey, I’m proud of you.’ ”

But the latest improvement is too little too late for some who have watched the school languish as one of the lowest-performing in South Carolina.

At least one of its well-known alumni is calling for Burke High to be shut down and restarted, and the issue soon could go to the District 20 Constituent School Board for a vote. The downtown board doesn’t have the authority to close the school, but an affirmative vote would make a political statement.

All of this is coming at a time when Charleston County School District leaders are moving ahead with a new effort to invigorate the school. They have dedicated a full-time employee to developing the University Center, which is a partnership between Burke High and downtown higher education institutions and medical centers.

“Are we committed to revitalizing Burke High and changing the perception? Yes,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “I think there will be ample renewed momentum, and I think there is a way to change both the perception and accelerate the outcomes without (closing the school).”

It’s hard to say what will happen next, but it’s clear the school again has become the center of attention.

Past to present

Burke High is one of the district’s most high-profile, politicized schools. That can be attributed in large part to its location, racial makeup, poverty and academic failures.

For many black residents, the peninsula’s lone neighborhood school is a tradition-rich, community institution that has given their children a good foundation for a promising future.

“Too often, people get rid of things that make a difference and continue to inspire the community to be better and to work together, and Burke is symbolic of that,” said Barbara Dilligard, a parent of two Burke High graduates and president of the Burke High School Foundation.

For many white and middle-class residents, the school has become synonymous with failure. Last school year, nearly half of the downtown children who could enroll in Burke High chose to go elsewhere.

“The stigma is there,” said Todd Garrett, a county school board member and downtown resident. “No one wants to go there, and no one wants their kids to go there.”

The school has gone before the S.C. Board of Education twice in the past seven years for its academic shortcomings, and local leaders have promised twice to do better.

It has had improvement plan after improvement plan, and progress has been incremental, at best. The high school saw a blip of progress on its report card ratings in 2008 and 2009 when it rated “below average,” but its middle school always has been “at risk.”

That’s why the middle school’s “below average” rating, coupled with the high school’s “average” rating, has been big news this year. The high school’s rating gains come from a 16 percentage point jump in its graduation and exit exam rates, for a total of 70.3 percent and 87.1 percent, respectively.

The school had eight more students graduate last school year than the previous year, and it did a better job of tracking students who transferred or moved. In the past, those students would have counted against its graduation rate.

The school also dropped its traditional schedule and did a two-week, intensive exit-exam workshop with students to ensure that they were ready. Students must pass the exit exam to earn a South Carolina diploma.

“This became the top priority,” Cannon said. “They were more focused during that time.”

But not all of the high school’s results were positive. Its end-of-course pass rate, its first-time exit-exam pass rate and its five-year graduation rate all worsened this year, and that is a concern for Cannon.

“We can’t afford to slip in any area,” he said.

Closing the school

Arthur Lawrence, a well-known Burke High alumnus and co-founder of Friends of Burke, is among those who are saying it’s time to close the school.

He’s an ardent supporter of the school, but he said it needs a fresh start. The district has poured money into the school — it spent $15,195 per pupil in 2010-11 compared with the district average of $9,233, according to 2013 state report cards — and students have the same problems, he said.

“Everyone they put in there is not working,” Lawrence said. “The thing is, that school needs to be integrated, and it needs to be revamped from top to bottom. It doesn’t seem like the district wants to do that and make the school reflect the community.”

He wants to see a change in the faculty and staff and see it restarted with the same Burke name.

“The name doesn’t educate the kids; it’s what you have in the facility,” he said.

Fran Clasby, a downtown resident and member of the downtown constituent school board, said Lawrence’s take on what needs to happen at Burke High is one of the reasons he plans to propose to the constituent board that the school be closed.

Clasby said the board routinely expels its students or considers requests for students who want to transfer, and they need a school with more resources than Burke can offer. He questioned the validity of its “average” rating.

He suggested that the school reopen as a temporary high school for Mount Pleasant until its building is constructed.

“(Mount Pleasant) is busting at the seams,” he said. “It still would serve downtown, but it would come with a whole new staff and administration.”

Those who want to close Burke High will face resistance. Two of Felicia Williams’ sons have graduated from the school, and the third will walk across the commencement stage in May. She said the school’s problem hasn’t been its staff or principal; the problems are students who don’t show up for class and parents that haven’t been involved.

Her youngest son, Kendric Williams, has been at Burke High since seventh grade, and he initially didn’t plan to go to college. That changed after some school-sponsored visits to college campuses, and he is the first in his class to receive a college acceptance letter.

He also doesn’t think the school should close.

“Our school is not bad,” he said.

Cannon said shutting down the school wouldn’t solve any problems or guarantee better outcomes.

“I can’t imagine this community wanting another change,” he said.

The school’s culture has been for students who don’t like certain teachers to retaliate by not paying attention or doing their work. He and the school’s faculty have worked hard to build positive relationships with students, and a new faculty would mean restarting that trust-building process.

“It takes time,” he said. “(Relationships) make a difference with our students.”

The University Center

McGinley is committed to the University Center concept, and she tapped Corel Lenhardt, a former associate principal at St. John’s High on Johns Island, to work on the project and develop its specifics.

Lenhardt has been in the position a few weeks, and she has spent that time meeting with the school’s stakeholders to find out what they want. She plans to take the input and report back to McGinley, who will decide on the next steps.

Lenhardt said it’s too early to say what the program will involve. University Center has been described as a partnership between Burke High and at least four colleges — MUSC, The Citadel, the College of Charleston and Trident Technical College — and they would develop courses for high school students to earn high school and college credit. The goal would be to better prepare Burke High graduates for college or career, as well as attract more downtown students to the school.

Although the University Center is in its initial stages of development, it already is facing criticism.

Garrett said the feedback he’s heard from the community hasn’t been positive. Parents want a good, academically rigorous high school, and they see University Center as another rendition of programs that have been tried in the past, he said. They don’t think it’s a good idea, he said.

Dilligard said the University Center appears to be limited in its scope, and its exclusivity is objectionable. She wants to see the school attract more students, but she also wants the program to offer courses that help bridge students to careers that might not offer degrees.

She hasn’t seen that in the plans, and she worries that it could be a repeat of when Academic Magnet High was housed on the school’s campus.

Lawrence said he’s willing to give the University Center a shot, but “this should be the last straw, and it should have taken place yesterday.”

“You can’t wait five years to get this off the ground,” he said.

Going forward

Cannon is proud of the gains his school has made, and he sees it as a big part of his job to be in front of students and encouraging them to have the best mindset.

He’s invested time and resources into finding ways to motivate students to do what is right, and it’s important to let students know they can succeed.

He said the school is on the right track, and he’s determined to continue its progress. Moving backward isn’t an option.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.