Downtown education advocates converge to tour nontraditional schools, discuss new options for peninsula
Downtown residents have rallied around a handful of innovative education initiatives in recent years, but there’s a lull in that conversation and activity now.
On the Web
Organizers launched a Facebook page to improve communication among downtown residents. For more information, go to facebook.com/CharlestonEducation2020.
A group of community members hosted a half-day gathering Tuesday with the hope of inspiring community engagement and building momentum for their next project.
“We hope that we have a group of stakeholders who are committed to making changes,” said Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina. “We’re trying to spark a movement.”
The alliance helped organize the more than five-hour event, but officials said a broad, representative group of residents with varying interests was involved. About 70 participants began with breakfast, toured four downtown schools and attended a luncheon and panel discussion. An anonymous donor covered the day’s expenses.
They called the event “Education: A 2020 Vision for the Peninsula,” and they said it wasn’t meant to contradict the district’s five-year plan, Vision 2016. They picked 2020 because they thought it would take longer than a few years to complete their next project.
Carmichael cited recent efforts, such as bringing Montessori education to James Simons Elementary and opening the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, as examples of projects supported by downtown residents. She said it doesn’t matter whether it’s a charter or magnet or private school that opens next, but she said she hopes the community will unite to find new solutions.
Paul Padron, the district’s executive director of access and opportunity, was one of two district employees who participated in the event. He said touring downtown schools was a great idea, and he wished more of the public school options had been included so the entire spectrum of opportunities would’ve been presented.
“What I got out of this was these are some of the options that are available, and I think it would be worth looking at all options and how can we provide choices for parents,” he said.
Padron said he hoped to be able to showcase more downtown schools in the future.
“The community needs to see what’s happening,” he said.
The panel featured a neighborhood president, a community group leader, a charter school founder and two officials from the toured schools. Questions ranged from what made those schools successful, and what are some of downtown’s educational needs that should be addressed.
Park Dougherty, one of the panelists and a founder of the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, said he hopes to see an elementary school with a rigorous academic focus, similar to the International Baccalaureate program some unsuccessfully advocated for at Memminger Elementary, as well as a restoration of traditional trade and vocational programs at Burke High.
He called downtown neighborhood and magnet schools segregated, and said that’s a huge problem. The math and science charter school is doing well, and it has similar numbers of black and white students as well as low-income students, he said.
“We’ve been under this yolk for hundreds of years and we’ve got to break it,” he said. “Diversity is working ... and that is what is key to transforming the downtown schools.”
Cecelia Gordon Rogers, principal of Charleston Development Academy, said the community needs to continue to dialogue and broaden its horizons. All children need to be educated equally if the goal is to be 21st century leaders, and educators and parents needs to be involved in meeting those goals, she said.
“We’ll never make progress if we’re not honest,” she said.