Alternative high school plan questioned

The fate of a proposed new alternative high school for Charleston County students appears unclear after several members of the Charleston County School Board raised concerns about whether the plan was the best way to serve at-risk students.

“Why are we wanting to take all these at-risk students and place them in one place ... only to expose them to other kids that are at risk?” asked School Board member Eric Mack. “How is putting all of these kids together in one hub going to help them?”

The school board got its first chance to discuss the proposal at a workshop last week after the district initially unveiled the plan in January to the board’s Strategic Education Committee.

The plan calls for a new $7.6 million building adjacent to the school district’s alternative program for middle school students at Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center in North Charleston. The new high school, dubbed Charleston Turning Point Academy, would serve students who have been recommended for expulsion as well as those who have fallen behind in high school credits, are overage for their grade, are pregnant or have children.

The new facility also would include a centralized office for all of the district’s alternative and adult education services so that students could be evaluated for those programs in one location.

Associate Superintendent James Winbush told the board the district would likely use a combination of local, state and federal dollars to pay for the operating costs of a new school, which would total $3.8 million annually.

If the board were to give approval for the plan this spring, Winbush said the district would work toward launching the school at a temporary site by the end of 2015.

But several board members raised concerns about the concept ranging from the location to the cost to fears that the students would be isolated.

Board member Chris Collins said prospective students would likely be predominantly black based on the demographics of students served at Daniel Jenkins, which to him raised concerns about racially segregating students.

“It’s essentially a school for poor black children to attend,” Collins said. “And that does kind of upset me a little bit.”

School Board member Chris Staubes echoed Collins’ concerns about potentially segregating students. Staubes also said he didn’t want an alternative high school to be come a place where principals can “pipeline lower performing kids.”

Mack asked why the district wasn’t already meeting the needs of its at-risk students in neighborhood high schools.

“I can’t support this concept until I can have an appreciation that we have successfully done what we’re supposed to do as a district to accommodate these students at the schools where they are now,” Mack said.

But board member Kate Darby said she liked the concept, noting that it would provide both psychological and academic support to students in a way that can’t be offered in traditional high schools.

“Children with emotional and psychological challenges are taking a lot of resources at other schools and are disruptive,” Darby said. “I think we have a need for an alternative high school.”

Acting Superintendent Michael Bobby said consolidating resources for at-risk students in one place would provide a better way to serve those students while also allowing faculty in traditional high schools to “pay the maximum amount of attention” to students at those schools.

Bobby asked the board to be ready to make a decision on the concept by the spring.

“We need to know how to move forward,” Bobby told the board. “If that’s not your direction, we’re OK with that. We just need to know so we can work on (serving at-risk students) another way.”