Few groups in Charleston are dedicated to scrutinizing the county school district's initiatives and advocating for high-quality education for every child.
The nonprofit Charleston Education Network had done that for more than a decade, but not anymore. The group has dissolved.
“None of us felt good about this, but it was an admission and recognition that as good as (executive director) Jon Butzon is and as good and influential as board members were, we still weren't making the kind of progress that one would expect should be made,” said Ted Halkyard, chairman of the group's board.
The nonprofit had a board of directors and one employee, Butzon, who was the mouthpiece of the organization. He analyzed students' test scores, weighed in on district reform efforts, attended most board meetings and talked with individual board members to offer the group's perspective.
Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she didn't know who was on the nonprofit's board most recently, but she called some of its previous members' educational knowledge “extraordinary.”
“They were valuable intellectual-thought partners who helped provoke my thinking and helped suggest areas that needed to change,” she said.
The landscape for local education advocacy groups is sparsely populated. Although many organizations work to support schools, few keep tabs on all the district's policies, funding, reform and community engagement efforts.
Neither Berkeley County nor Dorchester District 2 schools has a group similar to the Charleston Education Network.
Butzon didn't always support the district's position, but he found a way to make his criticisms without alienating school leaders.
“There are occasions where you have to be honest ... but that's what it takes, and (Butzon) is willing to do that,” Halkyard said. “He knows what he's talking about, and he's not at all hesitant to spell it out.”
A combination of factors contributed to the decision to break up the nonprofit, including a loss in financial support and an evolution in philosophy on the best method to see positive changes in schools.
“I don't think we can get to where we need to go doing what we're doing, and I don't think the current model of public education can be fixed,” Butzon said. “The Charleston Education Network was not founded or structured to do what needs to be done, and that is to implement a new model or models by way of demonstration.”
Every child needs great teachers, but there aren't enough of those teachers, he said. Schools need to be restructured so that more students can benefit from their instruction, he said. Rather than one teacher being assigned to a class of 25 students, a master teacher could offer lessons, perhaps virtually, to hundreds of students, while certified teachers who are assistants provide support, he said.
Another option is to allow reputable charter school networks, such as Rocketship Education or KIPP, to manage local schools, but require that they produce results or lose their contracts, he said.
John Barter, a county school board member and former board member of the network, said the network helped the community understand the seriousness of its education problems and realize it could provide every child an excellent education.
“We as a community have to make that happen,” he said.
Butzon said he felt his work has been more of a calling than a job, and he plans to continue listening to the dialogue, asking questions and offering his perspective.
“I've not had to stand in line to do any of that, ever,” he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter.
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