NAACP hosts public conversation about schools

The Charleston Branch NAACP gave over its regular meeting at Morris Brown AME Church Thursday evening to its members and guests, encouraging feedback on issues related to Charleston County public schools.

The meeting was organized in the wake of disputes about Hursey Elementary School, which is embracing the Montessori method of teaching despite some objections from parents and community leaders about how that decision was made.

The Hursey question really was part of a bigger discussion about the nebulous concept of "school choice," the Rev. Joe Darby said.

Darby, first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, objected to the paternalistic manner in which the Hursey decision was made and linked school choice to economics.

"If you have money, you have choice, if you have no money, you have no choice," he said in a separate interview.

Darby, NAACP President Dot Scott and Brandon Upson, the organization's newly appointed chairman of political action, all expressed worries about how Montessori status would impact current teachers not trained in the method and students not prepared for it.

Proponents of the change say the school community has wanted to introduce Montessori learning for a while, and that all students stand to benefit. (Approximately 80 percent of the school population is black.)

Also provoking concerns in recent weeks are reports of problems with bus service provided by Durham School Services. Complaints about overcrowding and safety issues, as well as the treatment of drivers by the company, have been aired though not resolved, according to some who spoke at Thursday's meeting.

Pastor Thomas Dixon of People United to Take Back Our Community, a coalition of concerned residents, said the school board should cancel its contract with the bus company.

"For the safety of our school children, Durham School Services must go," Dixon said.

Durham's regional manager, Ron Wilson, said in a statement that the company carefully inspects the vehicles it owns and operates in Charleston County.

"Of the 364 buses we operate in Charleston, less than one third are owned and maintained by Durham," he said. "We do not own nor do we maintain the state buses and there is a stark contrast between these fleets. We share concerns about the state's aging fleet and hope we can work in partnership to address this problem."

A number of speakers addressed a variety of other concerns, including school closings, student diversity, economic disparities and underfunding and the need to exercise one's right to vote.

Barbara Dilligard, president of the Burke Foundation, discussed the need to serve more students better at the downtown high school and avoid creating a distinct middle school that could further erode student population.

"Our preference is that Burke is a 6 to 12 school," she said, referring to grade levels offered there.

At the meeting were two school board members, Chris Collins and Michael Miller, who encouraged the gathering of about 90 people to become more involved in public school issues by attending board meetings and voicing their concerns.

"When the public is aware, it makes a big difference," Collins said.

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