Choosing to improve schools
Back in the day, students could choose what kind of lunch box to buy and whether to use a backpack or a satchel for school books.
The rest was decided for them.
Go to this school. Take these subjects. Sit still and listen.
Today in the Charleston County School District, the array of choices available to students is wide and getting wider. It’s a positive trend that merits continuing encouragement.
Superintendent Nancy McGinley’s philosophy in 2007 for peninsula schools seems to mirror what has become the district-wide philosophy:
“Our driving question is: ‘Should downtown Charleston create a portfolio of school options that give parents a choice and a voice in selecting and shaping their child’s educational experience?’ The answer is obvious. By inviting parents to the table to re-think public education on the peninsula, we are confident that we will meet the needs of the diverse families who currently reside in downtown Charleston.”
Parents and students searching for the school that best meets their needs have magnet schools, constituent district magnet schools, partial magnet schools and charter schools to check out. And while the district has been resistant to charter schools, Dr. McGinley has praise for both East Cooper Montessori and the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science in the old Rivers High School building.
Students can apply to schools with specific themes like the arts, math and science, Montessori and academic rigor.
They can often cross zoning lines in order to attend school.
But as we wrote in 2007, merely calling a school a “magnet” won’t attract parents. Performance is the draw.
Performance, as measured by test scores, is improving district-wide. In 2007, 53.1 percent of Charleston County schools were labeled “at risk” or “below average” by the state. In 2012, the percentage had dropped to 22.1. And Dr. McGinley expects that 2013 numbers will improve even more.
Still, she recognizes that there are some weak schools in the district that must be addressed if they are to win parents’ confidence. North Charleston High School is one. Burke High is another.
She is hopeful that reconfiguring Burke to give students choices will help. Plans are not yet firm, but call for four different academic strands designed and implemented in partnership with local colleges.
Burke would work with the Medical University for medical studies, with The Citadel for leadership studies, with the College of Charleston for studies related to teaching and with Trident Tech for information technology.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the district’s progress is wholly due to choice. The district has focused on improving literacy, providing high-quality buildings and ensuring teacher quality — all important to students’ success.
Altogether, it appears parents who might have opted for their children to go elsewhere before are now choosing public schools. In 2004, 52 percent of students were black. Now, the percentage of black and white students is nearly the same. The number of Hispanic students has tripled.
It takes more time to determine community wants and needs. Getting public input for reconstituting James Simons Elementary meant students will have to wait a grading period before getting in their new building.
But giving parents choices, along with functional and attractive buildings, talented teachers and curricula fashioned for each particular community is worth the extra effort.