An innovative idea for failing schools
The S.C. Department of Education will not take over Burke and North Charleston high schools — yet. But the idea of taking all of South Carolina’s officially designated “persistently failing” public schools and putting them in a statewide district merits serious consideration. S.C. Education Superintendent Mick Zais now advocates that innovation, citing similar approaches in Tennessee and Louisiana.
Dr. Zais did recommend Wednesday that the state’s seven “persistently failing” schools, including Burke and North Charleston, remain under the control of their local districts for now. The panel agreed and made that decision after a series of hearings Wednesday in Columbia.
Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley, along with Burke and North Charleston educators, urged the state board to give the local district more time to produce positive results from initiatives already in place at both schools.
But Burke and North Charleston have fallen short of minimum academic standards for years.
That doesn’t mean all of the students, teachers and administrators at those schools are at fault. It does mean, though, that the district’s previous efforts to overcome serious obstacles to improving classroom performance have not succeeded.
It’s a tough task. Among the fundamental obstacles to scholastic progress at the schools: Many of their students lack positive family support for education. Many also lack the reading skills needed for high school work — last year, more than 20 percent of entering ninth-graders at Burke and more than 33 percent at North Charleston read at no higher than a fourth-grade level.
Presumably the Charleston district’s strengthened focus on literacy over the last few years will help raise reading abilities over time.
And Dr. McGinley pointed out Thursday that the district has confidence in, and long-term commitments to, Burke Principal Maurice Cannon and North Charleston Principal Bob Grimm. She also said the district is “swimming in the same lane and direction” with the state as it pushes to base teaching compensation at the schools on classroom effectiveness.
Yet six years have passed since the last time the state board left Burke under local control following district assurances that effective plans were in place to produce significant academic gains.
Meanwhile, the challenge of consistently struggling schools clearly goes beyond Burke and North Charleston. That strengthens the practical argument for creating a statewide district to help provide common solutions for those schools’ common problems.
As Dr. Zais put it Wednesday: “These schools are failing, and failing persistently. And it’s not the students who are failing in these schools. It’s the adults on the boards, in the districts and in the schools who are failing the children.”
And the Charleston County School District must finally prove that it’s capable of getting Burke and North Charleston high schools out of the “persistently failing” rut.
As Dr. Zais begins developing plans for a statewide “failing school” district, the local district should make the most of this opportunity.