Proposed public-private partnership school modeled on Meeting Street Academy moves forward

The leaders of a successful, private school for low-income students took a step forward Monday night toward their goal of running a neighborhood public school.

The Charleston County School Board gave the go-ahead for district officials to develop the details of a proposed public-private partnership with Meeting Street Education Group, which runs Meeting Street Academy.

It would appear to be the first of its kind in the state and a potential prototype, with the district contributing public funds and Meeting Street using private money. Meeting Street would run the school.

“They’re saying ‘We can do this with any child in any school,’ and we’re saying, ‘Prove it,’” said school Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats. “The board has to move cautiously.”

The board agreed to explore the idea further in a 6-1 vote. Board member Chris Collins opposed the majority, and board member Elizabeth Moffly was not present.

Some members made it clear that they had questions and reservations. Collins said it looked as if the district was pulling students from one school and putting them in another without providing a better education.

“We’re bringing in someone else to educate the kids for us,” he said.

Board member Michael Miller emphasized that the board’s decision did not mean that the project would go forward. District leaders will have to return to the board with the final proposal, and the board would decide whether to proceed.

“We must come back with every detail nailed down in writing,” said School Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

The plan would involve the District 4 (North Charleston) constituent school board creating a new attendance zone for a neighborhood school on the former Brentwood Middle campus. It would draw from Mary Ford, North Charleston and Goodwin Elementary schools, and it could open as soon as fall 2014.

The new school would serve 110 children from age three to grade one in its first year, and it would expand until it enrolled 400 students through grade five.

“By pulling out what eventually would be several hundred students (from other nearby schools), we are taking some of the tremendous burden off other schools that have too many kids who have high needs,” McGinley said. “When 50 percent of your kids have really severe needs, that overwhelms a school.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Meeting Street Academy and the proposed public school is that the private school has hand-picked its students but the neighborhood school would accept any student in its attendance boundaries. McGinley thinks the Meeting Street model, which includes early childhood education, addressing children’s holistic needs and hiring excellent teachers, would work in a public setting.

“If given the appropriate supports, all kids can achieve at high levels,” she said. “Our community is incredibly lucky to have (Meeting Street Academy founder Ben Navarro) and a model like Meeting Street Academy.”

Navarro is the chief executive officer of Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group, and his company has bankrolled Meeting Street Academy. Students’ parents pay only $400 each year to attend the school, which spends about $12,000 per child. He did not attend the board’s meeting Monday.

Meeting Street Academy opened in 2008 and has grown to 121 student from age 3 to grade 4. It has expanded to a second school in Spartanburg.

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

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