Urgent mission: Desegregate Charlestons downtown public schools
BY TODD GARRETT
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was quietly planning a campaign in Birmingham. Moderates urged gradual steps, but Dr. King decided that he could not wait. One of his central tenets was the need to desegregate schools that had been underperforming for too long. Students’ talents lay dormant and untapped as they remained in low-performing schools.
As the Charleston County School District assesses the peninsula schools today, we still have largely segregated, low-performing schools, but the root of the problem is that parents of all races have largely abandoned peninsula schools. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of progress begun in Birmingham, we should also redouble efforts to improve the peninsula’s public schools.
All of the peninsula’s neighborhood schools are virtually segregated. The best are “average” while most are “at risk,” the lowest rating. Schools have become comfortable community centers, but they are failing to achieve their mission of being world-class education centers.
Our schools’ segregation and our community’s acceptance of that fact are hard to understand, given the demographics. While the peninsula’s racial mix is 70/30 Caucasian/African-American, the neighborhood schools are 90 percent plus African-American.
Of the 7,416 school-age children who live on the peninsula, only 22 percent attend peninsula public schools. While some choose private schools, most exercise their right to school choice and attend better public schools elsewhere. When 78 percent of the parents abandon our schools because they are sub-par, then we should take notice.
It is not a race issue. It is a socio-economic issue, and middle-class families of all races have walked away from the downtown options.
Some say the solution is more money, more programs and more facilities. However, we have tried that sort of top-down solution for decades, and the results speak for themselves. We’ve spent over $200 million on new facilities on the peninsula in the last 15 years.
For a child who starts in kindergarten in a peninsula school and stays on the peninsula to graduate from Burke High School, we spend $80,000 more on that child’s education than we do on the average CCSD student.
That amount will get you two years at Harvard or nearly five at Porter-Gaud, but on the peninsula in CCSD schools, it gets you a 47 percent chance of graduating from high school and only a 67.8 percent chance of reading above a fourth-grade level when you enter the ninth grade.
This August, several schools return from swing campuses as construction is completed at their home schools. Students will return to gleaming new facilities, up-fitted for a 21st-century education, but the schools will still be segregated, low performing and half empty, as families continue to opt out of peninsula schools.
We’ve gradually increased the money, programs and time thrown at the problems, to no avail. Nothing’s going to change, unless we too decide that we can’t wait.
Today, as young families again sprout on the peninsula, we have 11,971 children under the age of 18, with 4,555 of them 4 and under. We have an opportunity to begin a new direction for peninsula schools in which all children are given a world-class education.
To achieve that transformation, we are going to need to bring a sense of urgency to our mission. The time for lip service, half measures and patience has past. Those 4,500 children who will start school in the coming years are the reasons we can’t wait.
The path forward should invite drastic changes, driven by input and involvement from parents on the peninsula. The Neighborhood Planning Team for the peninsula must engage all peninsula parents in order to get more genuine input in the process.
While I am only one voice in this process, I would advocate for a new International Baccalaureate program at Memminger, a full Montessori program at James Simons and a program that reinforces math and science at Mitchell.
At-risk schools should be totally reconstituted, and we need to consider how we can improve middle and high school programs on the peninsula. The Charleston Charter School for Math & Science and Low Country Tech should both be allowed to grow and flourish, and with three empty campuses on the peninsula, there is no reason to hobble either program by cramming both into a single facility.
Failing schools fail the community and fail all of our children.
That is why we can’t wait, and more parents need to get involved. CCSD has begun a Neighborhood Planning Team in order to get input from the community. Please contact me, your neighborhood president, or CCSD and become part of the dialogue. It is critical that your voice be heard as we consider changes ahead. Our superintendent and her staff, our principals and our teachers all do a great job, but they aren’t mind readers.
Without your participation, we will not generate a plan that earns the trust and participation of the communities that surround our schools.
“All means all,” as some at the district are fond of saying.
All of our children deserve a world-class education, and that is the reason we can’t wait.
Todd Garrett is a member of the Charleston County School Board.