BY TODD GARRETT
Fifty-eight years after Brown v. Board of Education mandated desegregation, the Charleston County School District still maintains many segregated, low-performing schools. In a district that has roughly the same number of African-American students as white students, we have 15 schools that are almost entirely segregated (90 percent plus). In addition to being racially segregated, these same schools are also economically segregated, with a majority of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a measure of poverty). The result? The achievement gap between white and black students in Charleston County remains substantial, and it's not improving at the rate that we need it to.
While you may think that a segregated school is located in a segregated neighborhood, that isn't the case. Each of the 15 schools mentioned above is located in an area where the surrounding neighborhood is populated by people from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Six of the segregated schools on the peninsula are located in neighborhoods where 40 percent of the school-age children are African American. At four of them, over 95 percent of the students are African American. In neighborhoods where homes sell for $400,000 - $1 million, plus, more than 88 percent of the students at the neighborhood high school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The middle class, both black and white, has abandoned the failing schools.
While you may think that the situation is simply a function of CCSD not directing enough resources to these schools, that doesn't seem to be the case. At the seven predominantly segregated, high poverty high schools, CCSD spent an average of $17,910 per student in 2013. That amount is comparable tuition to our community's elite private schools, where tuition ranges from $8,000-$21,000 a year, but we aren't getting comparable results. At CCSD's integrated high schools, our average per pupil spending was $7,993 during the same period. In $34 million dollar, brand new facilities, the performance still lags if the student body is segregated.
Finally, before you resign yourself to the conclusion that high poverty results in low performance, the test scores show a different picture. On end-of-course exams (algebra, biology, English, and US history), high poverty students at integrated schools scored 4.9 percent better than their counterparts at segregated, high poverty schools. On the reading portion of the SAT, they scored 20 percent better. On the math portion of the SAT, high poverty students scored 24 percent better at the integrated schools. The contrast continues on Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and students who pass these exams can receive college credit. Only 3.2 percent (seven) of the 225 high poverty students at segregated schools received passing scores on an AP exam. In sharp contrast, 49.2 percent (111) of the 225 high poverty students at integrated schools received a passing score. Data from other districts mirror this research and demonstrate that integration is an effective strategy for closing the achievement gap.
CCSD and its trustees are committed to ensuring that all of our students are prepared to compete in the global economy, but we aren't there yet. And so far, just spending more money at low-performing schools hasn't closed the achievement gap. The lower level of performance at these schools affects everyone in Charleston County. Students who are less prepared to compete will not achieve their full potential as thriving members of the community. Moreover, segregated schools divide the community at the earliest level. They prevent children, parents and community leaders who live in the same neighborhoods from ever even knowing each other, much less working together. The effort to heal and reconcile the community along racial lines requires a united effort. It demands that we unite the community and desegregate schools in order to improve performance at schools in our midst.
More of the same - more money - isn't the answer. It won't work. Some schools may need to be closed, and many will need to be transformed in order to improve outcomes for the students we are now leaving behind. We can only integrate schools by winning back the trust of families (both black and white) who have voted with their feet to move to integrated, higher performing schools.
Charter schools aren't the answer for everything, but their local autonomy and their school-level decision making have allowed many of them to close, and even eliminate, the achievement gap. The new "schools of choice" law provides another avenue to transform schools. This law allows the community to open new schools; the law gives the school some local autonomy and allows the community to have more input into how the school is run.
Your school board isn't perfect, but your trustees are committed to raising the performance level of all our schools and closing the achievement gap. Your trustees are parents and grandparents of children in our CCSD schools, and we are fully invested in accomplishing our mission. I ask for your support in transforming our low-performing, segregated schools, your patience during this process, and your willingness to trust that despite our mistakes, we are working hard to help all of our children succeed.
Todd P. Garrett is a member of the Charleston County School Board.