District has failed Burke, North Charleston high schools
BY JON BUTZON
Next week the South Carolina Board of Education will consider what to do with seven chronically failing schools, including Burke High School and North Charleston High School. The state board could continue helping the schools, could remove the principals or could take control of them.
There are those who would take exception to the use of the words “failing” or “at risk” in describing Burke and North Charleston.
I agree. These schools have already failed, over and over again. They have failed to meet the minimum standards for student achievement. They have failed to make adequate progress toward meeting those standards.
Most seriously, they have failed in their responsibility to the children whose education has been entrusted to them. The schools have failed, and the district has failed to make any significant improvement in their performance.
Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley recently wrote, “These schools aren’t ‘dropout factories.’ They are dream-making ‘opportunity centers.’ ”
I wonder what the 65 percent of students who were supposed to graduate this year from North Charleston, but did not, would say. Or if the one-third of last August’s entering freshmen whom the school board sent to high school at North Charleston reading on a fourth-grade level would agree. Dream-making opportunity centers is what these schools ought to be. It’s what every school should be. But these schools aren’t dream-making opportunity centers for all of their students, and years of data speak clearly and powerfully to that fact.
To be sure, the challenges of producing a high-level education for the students of these two schools are enormous. Regardless, that is the job before us. And the enormity of the challenge is no excuse for not meeting the challenge.
This isn’t the first time that the S.C. Board of Education has considered what to do with one of these schools. After years of failure, in the summer of 2006 the board considered what to do with Burke High School.
The community mobilized behind the school and the school district and campaigned to convince the state board not to take over the school, but instead to give the district another chance. Truth be told, the state board was easy to convince. It didn’t want the massive responsibility that went with a takeover.
Following the decision to leave Burke to the tender mercies of the school district, and supported by a list of community partners as long as your arm that included the Charleston mayor’s office and the College of Charleston, the turnaround of Burke High School was launched.
Six years later we are at the same spot in the road. This does not meet any rational person’s definition of progress. This time that spot in the road has to be “do or die.”
All the numbers from 2012 have not been made public yet for Burke and North Charleston. Regardless, you can be sure that the numbers are not materially improved. If they were, these schools would not be on the agenda for July meeting of the S.C. Board of Education.
If we take a longer view, we get a clearer picture of how little progress has been made. In 2006, Burke and North Charleston high schools tied with two other Charleston County schools as the four lowest-performing high schools in the state. By 2011, out of 251 public high schools, Burke had crept up to a tie for sixth lowest-performing high school, and North Charleston had slid up to second lowest performing.
The school district will no doubt again make the case that the state board should leave both schools under their control
What sense does that make? Both schools have had the same leadership, the same approach to learning and reform, and the same lack of substantive progress and success for seven years. No, I’m not talking about leadership in the front office of the school. I’m talking about the front office of the school district.
If we have proven conclusively two things over seven years, it is that the district’s best efforts and hard work simply aren’t enough, and the district does not know what to do. What makes anybody think it will be different this time?
What to do? The answer is not for the South Carolina Department of Education to run these schools, either. I think even the Department of Education would agree.
But the department could take control of these two schools plus the other five and bring in somebody who knows what to do and how to do it. How would that work?
There is an interesting initiative going on in Tennessee. The state has identified its bottom 5 percent of schools. That’s about eighty schools. The state has put them in a separate, state-managed school district, the Achievement School District (ASD), under the leadership of an innovative education reformer with a track record of success.
These folks are serious. Their plan is to take bottom 5 percent schools to top 25 percent schools in five years. The ASD has contracted with several Charter Management Organizations to take responsibility for some of these schools. KIPP Nashville, LEAD Public Schools, and Rocketship Education will serve students in Nashville. Charter schools selected for Memphis include Aspire Public Schools, Capstone Education Group, Gestalt Community Schools, KIPP Memphis, and Rocketship Education.
South Carolina can do the same thing here.
To leave Burke and North Charleston under the management of the Charleston County School District is ludicrous. Worse, it’s harmful to children. This is “do or die” time, and there is no evidence that the school district can do what needs to be done.
We owe these students an education, no matter how hard that may be to deliver. And we cannot leave them on the side of the road again.
Enough, I say. Damn it, enough!
Jon Butzon is executive director of the Charleston Education Network.