There is no disagreement about the need to improve downtown’s lowest-performing schools, but there is less consensus around how to fix that.

Facts about Burke High’s middle school

The middle school portion has received the state’s lowest rating of “at risk” for more than eight consecutive years.

The middle school received an “F” under federal ratings, which means it is performing “substantially below” the state’s expectations.

More than 60 percent of its students are not meeting the state’s grade-level standards in English/language arts, science and social studies. In math, 56.5 percent of students are not meeting that requirement.

Less than 30 percent of the school’s teachers were satisfied with the school’s home-to-school relationships. Slightly more than half, or 53 percent, were satisfied with the school’s learning environment.

Burke High was among seven of the state’s “persistently failing” schools to appear before the state Board of Education last year. The state could have assumed control of the school, but did not.

S.C. Department of Education

Charleston County school leaders have been meeting with downtown residents and school employees to talk about options, and they say the community wants a stand-alone middle school as soon as possible. They say the best option for doing that is converting Sanders-Clyde School into a middle school.

“If the community wants it quickly, we’re really limited to put into an existing building,” said Paul Padron, the district’s executive director of access and opportunity, who has been leading the public engagement process.

Others say that’s not true, and they want the district to slow down and consider more possibilities.

Some parents were so concerned about the district’s plans that they organized a separate community meeting last week to talk about the situation.

“I don’t see why the rush right now,” said Arthur Lawrence, president of the Westside Neighborhood Association and member of the planning team. “They need to get it right before they bring anything out.”

Superintendent Nancy McGinley said any plan would have to go to the school board for approval, and she has not made any recommendations. But the middle school portion of Burke High has been “at risk” for years, and the peninsula has seen an exodus of students, she said.

“That is what led me to ask Padron to facilitate the team,” she said. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have any community where the middle school issue is such an urgent issue.”

It’s possible a recommendation that would go into effect this fall could be brought to the school board, but that would have to happen fairly soon, she said.

The middle school was moved to the Burke High campus in the fall 2005. At that time, the district’s lone downtown middle school, Rivers Middle, had been failing for so long that officials thought the move, accompanied by a new academic reform program, would give the school a much-needed boost.

The board agreed to close the middle school, but that move has done little, if anything, to improve students’ achievement.

District officials invited more than 45 downtown leaders — from neighborhood association presidents to college officials to constituent board members — to participate in this planning process, and roughly half of those invitees did.

Some of those who participated in the planning said it was made clear from the start that the district’s leadership wanted to convert Sanders-Clyde into a stand-alone middle school.

“My perception is they’ve thought about this on the staff level, and they’re trying to put their plan into a public vetting hoping that we’ll buy into it,” said Fran Clasby, president of Wagener Terrace Neighborhood Association. “But we didn’t get to make any input. They’re trying to force their agenda through the Neighborhood Planning Team and make it sound like they did their (public engagement) duty.”

County school board member Todd Garrett lives downtown and has been a strong advocate for improving schools to bring back more of the families who have abandoned them.

The district has a good goal of trying to build strong programs to gain parents’ confidence, but he said it doesn’t appear as though the public has had a chance to give genuine input. Although he would rather make changes quickly, he said he doesn’t want that at the expense of community engagement.

“I don’t expect agreement, but I do expect something that reflects the will of the parents,” he said. “I’d say let’s slow down and wait another year.”

Padron said the planning team considered every building downtown, and he gave reasons why none of the others would work. He said if the community is willing to wait, the district has more options for what it can do.

“It’s not as easy as everyone thinks,” Padron said. “It’s a tough decision no matter what.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.