Charleston County school leaders explore public-private replication of Meeting Street Academy

Jadin Anderson, 6, flexes after reading a book about good health habits at Meeting Street Academy.

Meeting Street Academy has proven it can give low-income students a high-quality, private-school education at virtually no cost to parents.

Now, the group behind the Charleston school wants to prove its model can work in a public, high-poverty school. They’re in talks with Charleston County school leaders to create a new North Charleston elementary school that would serve its at-risk neighborhood students.

The proposed public-private partnership school would appear to be the first of its kind in the state and a potential prototype. The school district would provide its standard funding for each student, and the Meeting Street Education Group would run the school and invest in areas it sees as critical, such as enrolling students as young as age 3 and extending the school day and year.

The concept has enthusiastic support from the state education superintendent, North Charleston’s mayor, and the county school superintendent, but it’s less clear whether a majority of the county school board will endorse the project, which would be necessary to make it a reality.

Meeting Street Education Group leaders want to reach more students, and they’re convinced they can make the new school successful. They hope to open as soon as next fall.

“It’s not that everyone doesn’t want the best for these kids, and it’s not that you (the district) aren’t spending enough money,” said Ben Navarro, the leader of the Meeting Street group. “It’s a different world with this demographic. Maybe we can help make it that much clearer on how our model works to serve these kids.”

Meeting St. Academy


Navarro has been the quiet, publicity-shy founder and primary funder of Meeting Street Academy. He is founder and chief executive officer of Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group, a company that originates, purchases and services consumer debt. His company has paid the tab for everything from teachers’ salaries to students’ uniforms.

Meeting Street Academy opened in 2008 to 45 3- and 4-year-olds, and it has grown to 121 students from age 3 to fourth grade, with plans to add fifth grade next year. Meeting Street Academy also has opened a second school in Spartanburg.

Although the school spends about $12,000 on each student annually, low-income families pay a fraction of that — only $400 per year.

Its students’ test scores are strong. By the end of last school year, 100 percent of students in grades K-3 were reading at or above grade level. Its third-graders outscored the national average in every subject tested.

The school got those results by using a specific set of strategies: starting early, with students enrolling as young as age 3; creating strong partnerships with families, who are required to take an active role in their children’s education and be at the school 10 hours annually; addressing each child’s needs holistically, which means healthy meals, medical screenings, exercise, and an extended school day; and hiring excellent teachers.

That’s the same kind of approach that the private school’s backers want to use with the new public school. Navarro said he wants the district to be able to use it as proof of what’s possible when specific additional investments are made.

“This is a potentially powerful way to leverage what we’ve done to date,” he said.

New elementary school


Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she’s been having conversations with Navarro about what his group could do to help more children succeed, and that’s where this idea originated.

The 2012 state law that would enable the public-private partnership school to exist seemed to apply only to new schools versus existing ones, so they’re considering repurposing the former Brentwood Middle as a neighborhood elementary school. The new Brentwood elementary would have an attendance zone, and it would pull students from Burns, North Charleston, Mary Ford, and Hursey Elementary schools. The North Charleston constituent school board would have to change those schools’ boundary lines.

A new elementary school would relieve some of the overcrowding at those high-poverty schools, and its building could be ready before next fall. It would start with about 200 students age 3 to second grade, and it would grow one grade each year until it reaches fifth grade.

The new school would have a theme of entrepreneurship, and it would work to expose students to the community’s businesses.

Organizers said the school wouldn’t cost the district any additional money than it would’ve otherwise spent. Meeting Street Education Group is looking at a roughly additional 20 percent per student investment to ensure students have the services they need.

The group would pledge to run the school for five years, but Navarro said that would be the start of a long-term commitment.

“We’re doing this to be successful, and I’m not going anywhere any time soon,” he said. “And neither is the Meeting Street Education Group.”

Reaction


The school board’s committees have been presented with information on the proposal in recent weeks. County school board member John Barter pointed out one key difference between Meeting Street Academy and a neighborhood public school is the private school’s ability to be selective of its students. Its families go through interviews and a home visit, and that’s a significant difference between a “take all comers” public school, he said.

Navarro said the new elementary school would have to find ways to motivate parents and caregivers to do right by their children, and it will come down to day-to-day efforts to involve them, such as checking on families in the carpool line.

“The fundamentals of what makes for a great school and what works, I don’t think they change radically in a neighborhood situation,” Navarro said.

Board member Elizabeth Moffly said she liked the concept, but the district has other priorities and she’s concerned those wouldn’t be funded because of this.

Board member Cindy Bohn Coats said none of Meeting Street Academy’s ideas are new, but this would give a traditional neighborhood school more funding and more flexibility.

The state’s schools-of-choice law allows districts to request exemptions from state laws related to school operations, which is similar to the freedom public charter schools have. The new school would request more flexibility, and that would have to be approved by two-thirds of the school board and the state Board of Education.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has encouraged districts to take advantage of the statute but none have. He applauded Charleston school leaders for considering this idea and being willing to take a risk.

“This is the exact kind of creativity and innovation that I have been advocating for from Day 1,” he said. “I’m excited to see how it all turns out.”

Going forward


The next step is for the Meeting Street Education Group and county school district leaders to work out a memorandum of understanding that would spell out the details of what each would contribute and do. It’s important to be transparent and set clear expectations about that relationship, McGinley said. That proposal would go to the county school board for approval.

“This is about putting together things that have proven to be effective,” she said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he can see this new school becoming a model for the county and state, but it’s going to take everyone being involved.

“You know the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’?” he said. “This is the village coming together.”



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

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