Let charter schools boost ethnic diversity, classroom performance
Memminger Elementary and Burke Middle High are neighborhood schools that do not match the makeup of their neighborhoods. Over half of the students in their attendance zones are white. Yet over 90 percent of their students are African-Americans.
Forty-nine years after desegregation plans were implemented, downtown Charleston’s neighborhood schools are nearly as segregated as they were before 1963.
The segregation of these schools is hurting all downtown students — both those who attend them and those who do not. All children can succeed. But students in high poverty schools encounter more obstacles than those with more diverse populations. Only half graduate on time. Many suffer the fates of dropouts — including time in prison.
The costs of failing to educate low-income children are so high that it seems logical to focus on those students. But costs are incurred by others, too — including families that relocate or pursue other options because these schools are not educating students well.
Shouldn’t there be viable options for all the families they are zoned to serve?
The answer is obvious to residents of Mount Pleasant, where the schools are excellent and attract a diverse cross-section of families. But Charleston’s downtown neighborhood schools seem to be reserved for the economically disadvantaged. Initiatives to attract white middle-class students are attacked as elitist conspiracies to “resegregate” — which is ironic.
In fact, given their current demographics, attracting more white students is the only way to desegregate downtown’s neighborhood schools. Increasing ethnic diversity could also improve their performance, according to Superintendent Nancy McGinley, who said in 2007: “While some schools that serve primarily ‘economically disadvantaged’ students are succeeding academically, there exists a persistent pattern of low achievement among most high poverty schools. One solution is to change the makeup of these schools. Research tells us that schools with a balance of economic and ethnic diversity offer a well-rounded and effective educational environment.”
Evidence that diversity can be achieved at an historically segregated campus is provided by the Charleston Charter School for Math & Science (CCSMS.) In 2005, on the Rivers campus there was a high poverty school that had failed every NCLB report card since inception. Today at Rivers, there is a school with socio-economic diversity, and it is succeeding. Half of the CCSMS students are African-Americans, half are white and half come from low-income families. Every member of its first graduating class is planning to pursue higher education. And it earned an A on its latest report card, based on its 2012 PASS tests, exit exams, end-of-course tests and graduation rate.
Diversity plus high expectations works. The research that Dr. McGinley cited was right. So how was diversity achieved? The CCSMS charter committee asked parents: “What would work for you at Rivers? What would you like for your children that is not available elsewhere?” They said, “math and science,” which is also a national priority and essential for careers in the Lowcountry’s growth industries: engineering and health sciences. CCSMS now offers majors in both via Project Lead the Way.
Similar inquiries should be made with the parents of school-aged children who live in the Memminger and Burke attendance zones. “Would you be interested in a foreign language immersion program for your child? Chinese? How about the International Baccalaureate program? How about a focus on vocations? Green technology? Communication arts? Health sciences? Would single gender classes be appealing?”
Programs that parents want will pique their curiosity, but sending their children to these schools will require a change in control from the school district to a board elected by the schools’ parents and teachers — i.e. conversion into a public charter school. A charter school is funded by tax dollars, manages its budget, charges no tuition, administers no admissions tests, chooses its principal and determines its curriculum.
Jon Butzon’s cogent analysis of the Burke situation, published recently on this page, concluded that the state should take it over and hire a charter management company. State Superintendent Mick Zais agrees and is advocating legislation that will allow that to happen. We urge our legislators to support him on that.
Likewise, we urge the Charleston County School District and its board to support charter conversions, now that its primary reason for preventing the conversion of Drayton Hall Elementary — the funding formula — was changed by the General Assembly this year.
Six out of the nine school board seats will be on the ballot this November. We’ll be voting for the candidates that support desegregation and charter conversions, which will be essential for desegregation to actually happen this time. We ask you to do the same.
Leroy Connors is a co-founder of Friends of Burke and a former member of the District 20 Constituent School Board and the Charleston Charter School of Math & Science board. Arthur “Pete” Lawrence is a community activist. Park Daugherty is former chair of the CCSMS board and a former member of the Memminger Neighborhood Planning Team.