Academic Magnet diversity a top goal


New Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait’s goals for the school year include improving diversity at the district’s best and most selective high school.

Postlewait wants to ensure at least 10 percent of each eighth-grade class meets the academic criteria for admission to Academic Magnet High School in response to concerns over the increasing lack of diversity at the top-ranked high school in the district and the state.

She unveiled a list of 40 goals at the county school board meeting on Monday evening for the board’s pending approval.

“Everyone knows that 40 goals are too many goals. It’s too much for us to take on,” she said at Monday’s meeting, before adding: “This is not at all intended to be a complete picture.”

In the past decade, enrollment of black students at Academic Magnet has plummeted — from 118 of 506 students 10 years ago to only 12 of nearly 650 students this year. Academic Magnet’s diversity problem became even more acute last year after the school’s football team came under fire for a controversial victory ritual involving the smashing of watermelons, which many viewed as perpetuating demeaning stereotypes of African-Americans.

Postlewait’s 10 percent plan “sounds good in theory,” said board member Michael Miller, but he’s worried about implementation.

“How do you make that work?” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. Maybe she will bring us information to tell us how we’ll get to that point, but as of right now, there ain’t no way in hell you’re gonna get 10 percent of those kids in those schools just because those schools don’t offer the classes those kids need to score well enough at Academic Magnet.”

Data from the school district shows that students from predominantly black and lower-income middle schools rarely apply and are rarely accepted into Academic Magnet. For example, at Jerry Zucker, Sanders-Clyde and Northwoods middle schools, none of the 18 total students who applied to go there this year were accepted. At Burke, not one eighth-grader submitted an application.

“One of the things Dr. Postlewait brings to the table is her experience and successes in a large district with a variety of urban and rural areas — Horry County,” said board chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats. “She knows the things that can be done in a district as large and diverse as Charleston County and (believes) every student is going to learn the same thing and every student will be prepared regardless of what schools they attend.”

Postlewait’s controversial appointment as superintendent in July provoked intense backlash and criticism, particularly from African-American civic leaders, such as Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, who lambasted the board’s decision as a “blatant act of racist insensitivity.”

Postlewait said she sees her goals, developed with input from principals, teachers, board and community members, as an extension of ex-Superintendent Nancy McGinley’s “Vision 2016,” the district’s lofty strategic plan, which comes to an end this year.

“I think Vision 2016 laid the foundation. Some of the 2016 goals aren’t yet realized. So this will build on the 2016 goals and take them forward,” she said.

The school district launched “Charleston Achieving Excellence: Vision 2016,” a highly ambitious set of student performance goals for the 2015-16 academic year, in 2012. In the past three years, the district has made some progress improving student scores on the state’s standardized assessment, but not nearly enough to meet the 2016 deadline.

For example, by 2016, McGinley wanted 98 percent of third-graders testing proficiently in English and language arts. But according to the district’s most recent scores, in 2014, only 81 percent were proficient — a less-than-2 percent gain from 2011, when 79.6 percent of third-graders met grade-level standards. And black and low-income students lagged even further behind their peers.

Postlewait asked board members to review her goals and submit their feedback, including those they deem the highest priority, over the next week. The Charleston County School Board will vote on whether to approve them at the Sept. 28 meeting.

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.