Charleston County School District faces a crucial test in Columbia
There is an underlying unfairness in the term “failing school.” It casts a collective cloud over all of a school’s students, teachers and administrators.
But because Burke and North Charleston high schools have long produced dismal overall academic results, they have been officially classified by the S.C. Department of Education as two of the only seven “persistently failing schools” in the state.
And because the Charleston County School District has long failed to turn Burke and North Charleston around, Superintendent Nancy McGinley must make a convincing case to the S.C. Board of Education today to avert a state takeover of both schools.
That radical takeover step isn’t the only possibility when the panel meets in Columbia to review the recurring scholastic futility of those seven “persistently failing schools.” The board has two other more probable options — replacing the schools’ principals or providing more state resources to help them improve.
Dr. McGinley predictably prefers the latter alternative. She will appeal to the board to leave Burke and North Charleston under local control — despite the “at risk” ratings that both schools have drawn for at least eight straight years.
Two of the poor marks that contribute to the schools’ failing grades: On-time graduation rates — Burke, 55.6 percent; North Charleston, 43.5 percent; end-of-course pass rates — Burke, 41.9 percent; North Charleston, 37.8 percent.
But before assuming that the academic difficulties at those schools started on their campuses, ponder these all-too-revealing statistics:
More than 20 percent of Burke’s entering ninth-graders last year couldn’t read above a fourth-grade level. That shortcoming was even more glaring at North Charleston, where more than 33 percent of entering freshmen read at fourth-grade level or below.
That appalling lack of preparation in earlier grades is a common denominator at most “failing” high schools.
It’s also a familiar problem at Burke, which also was considered for a state takeover six years ago. A group of district and civic officials, including Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, went to Columbia and convinced the state board to leave Burke under local supervision.
Still, this obvious question arises: How long must such chronic classroom futility last before the state takes a crack at the problem?
Jon Butzon, executive director of the Charleston Education Network, argues that in the sad cases of these two schools, the district’s failures have already gone on far too long. In a column on our Commentary page Saturday, he cited an ongoing Tennessee initiative that puts failing schools in a state-managed district “under the leadership of an innovative education reformer with a track record of success.”
Mr. Butzon wrote 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?”
However, Dr. McGinley insisted in comments to our reporter that both schools now have principals laying solid groundwork for progress. She also warned: “To change course again would destabilize the progress that’s under way. My goal is building lasting change that can and will be sustained over time.”
Yet again, how much more time will that take?
Clearly, district and school officials face a crucial examination today in Columbia.
Just as clearly, when any public school repeatedly fails to meet minimum academic standards, our education system has flunked a fundamental test.