Adding middle, tech schools will not fix Burke, some say

Student Bruce Mitchell answers questions during his AP United States History class at Burke High School last year. Burke High has made efforts, such as its Advanced Placement Academy, to attract a more diverse student body but the racial makeup of the school has not changed.

Plans to move Lowcountry Tech Academy to Burke High School have opened the door for a new conversation about how to revitalize the long-struggling downtown Charleston school.

“Continuing doing what we’re doing — as hard as we’re working at it — is not making a difference here,” acting Superintendent Michael Bobby told the Charleston County School Board at a meeting last week. “We think there’s an opportunity here to reconstruct, reconstitute, basically start something that is going to reach out and touch ... everyone on the peninsula with respect to what they want for their children.”

Bobby told the board the district is still developing a proposal for what a comprehensive approach to incorporating Lowcountry Tech at Burke might look like, but the goal is to find a way to improve diversity and student achievement at the school.

The School Board voted last year to move Lowcountry Tech from the Rivers Campus on King Street where it currently shares a building with Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. The technology program, which offers five career and technology majors including cybersecurity, green energy and construction, computer service technology and tablet repair, computer networking and innovative digital graphics, must be moved by the start of the 2016 school year. The charter school will then move its more than 250 middle-schoolers into the Rivers building in January of 2017.

The district had previously worked up a plan to build a $7.3 million addition at Burke to house Lowcountry Tech, which currently operates as a countywide program. The new concept, Bobby said, would save the district on up-front costs by adding the academy inside Burke, which is under capacity.

The proposal to revamp Lowcountry Tech comes as the district prepares to open a standalone middle school in the Rhett Building on the Burke campus in the fall. The district is planning to launch an advanced-studies magnet program at the middle school similar to what is being offered at Haut Gap Middle on Johns Island.

The school would move sixth-graders from Memminger and Mitchell elementary schools to the Burke campus. Sanders-Clyde Elementary will remain a K-8 school, but students will be allowed to attend the middle school if they choose. There are currently no middle schools on the peninsula. Instead students are served in elementary schools or go to Burke starting in the seventh grade.

Bobby said in an interview that thinking about how the middle school and Lowcountry Tech can best serve students as they transition to high school is the next logical step.

“What is all of that going to look like and what is in the best interest of the peninsula in terms of high school offerings that will meet the needs of a broad and diverse population?” Bobby asked. “It’s a very complex question.”

Challenges

Burke has continued to struggle with declining enrollment and lagging academic performance. The school’s enrollment in grades 7-12 has dropped by around 200 students in the last five years from around 660 in 2010 to around 460 students this school year. The school has made some progress academically, jumping from being rated at-risk on its state report card to an average rating last school year. However, the school backslid this fall when its rating dropped to below average.

The district in recent years has tried a number of solutions to reinvigorate the school, including launching an Advanced Placement Academy. The district also discussed creating a career academies program dubbed University Center, but that never got off the ground.

School Board members are unsure of the best way forward. Several board members have said they’re not sure that opening a standalone middle school or adding Lowcountry Tech is going to address all of the educational issues facing downtown Charleston schools.

School Board member Michael Miller said that neither plan addresses what he sees as the core problem facing Burke — that students aren’t ready for high school when they get there.

“I think the revitalization with Burke has very little do to with Burke itself and has more to do with the district’s inability to produce students at the elementary and middle schools who can do high school work and read on grade level,” Miller said. “That’s a district problem Burke just inherits.”

Until the district comes up with a plan to address literacy and academic performance, he said, adding a middle school or incorporating the academy isn’t going to solve the problem.

“I think we’re trying to create a dynamic to make Burke more palatable for some people in our community so they will send their children there,” Miller said. “And that’s just window dressing. If we’re really serious about addressing academic issues on the peninsula, let’s have that comprehensive conversation.”

School Board member Todd Garrett thinks the idea of including Lowcountry Tech in a more comprehensive way at Burke is “going in the right direction.”

Garrett last year spearheaded the idea of moving the program from its King Street location based on low enrollment and high operating costs. He had hoped that moving the program to Burke would make it more accessible to students who currently attend the program for one period a day.

But if the district is going to more fully incorporate the academy at Burke, Garrett said he would like to consider blending the academy’s courses with a center for advanced studies, similar to what’s planned for North Charleston and West Ashley high schools.

What’s next

There’s no immediate timeline for the board to take action, Bobby said, adding that a decision will have to be made ahead of moving the academy for the 2016-17 school year.

As the district moves forward with opening the middle school in the fall, the question, Bobby said, is how does the district better serve those students as they move into high school.

“The leading issue is how we can continue to improve the offerings that we have for the middle and high schools to meet the needs of this very diverse population with a lot of expectation for their children as they get older,” he said. “We have a vibrant high school (in Burke) in certain respects and yet there’s a need for more — a need to create diversity and even greater academic rigor. What that’s going to look like, that’s what has to be managed in terms of the work moving forward.”

Garrett said while he’s hopeful about the new plan, he thinks the real key to improving the diversity at Burke is engaging the parents of the increasingly white peninsula neighborhoods that the district is aiming to serve.

“I feel like it’s going to take consciously reaching out to parents and giving them an advisory role in implementing changes at the school,” Garrett said.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.