Burns staff wary of private takeover

Burns Elementary School principal Lynn Owings sits on the floor with first-graders Tyshawn Cypress-Weathers (left), Marquies Bligen and Kalaysia Washington, as they play a learning game Friday afternoon.

Assistant Principal Megan Lambert-Bocchino swept a pile of waffle crumbs off a table as she entered her office at Edmund A. Burns Elementary on Friday afternoon. A student had arrived late to his first day at the school, still working on breakfast, part of the never-ending tide of children who come and go at one of the highest-poverty schools in the county.

As the Charleston County School Board considers a plan Monday night to gradually turn over management of the North Charleston school to a private group called Meeting Street Schools, some staff members at Burns say they would give anything to keep working with the kids they’ve come to love.

On paper, Burns Elementary is the kind of school most parents would avoid if they could. The state has given the school its lowest possible report card rating, At Risk, since 2006. Scores on standardized tests are abysmal, even compared with other high-poverty schools in the state. Teacher turnover is high, with only 62 percent returning to the school last year — and Principal Lynn Owings readily admits that some teachers simply aren’t up to the challenge.

Some students arrive at the school unable to recognize the sound of their own name, much less the letters of the alphabet. Drive-by shootings on Dorchester Road have put the school on lockdown more than once.

Some students left the school Friday afternoon with a box of donated sweet potatoes and other produce from the school, unsure of which hotel or relative’s living room their family would call home for the night.

Under the proposal for this fall, kindergartners zoned for Burns would begin attending Meeting Street Academy @Brentwood, a school created in a unique public-private partnership that has shown some promising results with a small student population and a boost of private funding.

One year at a time, the district would then take a grade level from Burns and transfer it to Brentwood, eventually sending the students to a brand-new Burns campus of their own. (The upper grades would move to a temporary space in the Ronald McNair building on Spruill Avenue.)

At their temporary Brentwood home, students would have several advantages, including two teachers in every classroom, an extended school year to prevent summer reading loss, and an extended school day that lasts late into the afternoon.

In her four years at Burns, Owings said she and her staff have asked for those very same changes at their school, but they couldn’t make headway with the district.

“Funding always came back as an issue,” Owings added.

The Meeting Street advantage comes in part from a generous helping of private money. At Brentwood, Meeting Street Schools invested $1.3 million renovating the aging campus, along with an additional $5,000 per pupil starting in the first year of the partnership. The per-pupil private investment is expected to shrink to $3,000 as the student population grows over the years.

But while Owings said she could do a lot of good at Burns with that kind of cash infusion, School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said Burns is already getting more money than most elementary schools in the district. The school’s total budget for the current year is $5.8 million, trailing only a few schools including Ladson and Jennie Moore Elementary, which have significantly larger student bodies.

Coats said the planned takeover at Burns is not meant as an indictment of the teachers there, but of a system that isn’t working.

“Excellent people cannot make Herculean growth in a fundamentally flawed system,” Coats said. If the experiments at Brentwood and Burns work out, Coats said, the district will know that the innovations can work elsewhere in the district.

Meanwhile, Owings said the district has been dialing back some helpful supports from previous years.

The Renaissance Schools program that provided external evaluations for teachers at Burns has been discontinued, and the number of extra staff development days at the school has dwindled over the past three years from 20 to 10 to five in the current school year.

Next year there will be none, she said.

While Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood showed promising improvements in test results for kindergartners last year, with 60 percent of the students scoring in the test’s top quartile, several Burns staff members have pointed out the caveat that Brentwood was working with a total population of just 96 students, compared with Burns’ 573.

This school year, Burns has made some strides of its own. After some staff scheduling tweaks that allowed two teachers at a time to help with group reading sessions, first-graders made big gains on the Measures of Academic Progress reading test between the start of the school year and now. Sixty-one percent are now scoring at or above the test’s median, up from 42 percent just one semester ago.

Third-grader Michael Jordan has attended Burns since pre-K, a rarity in a student population that shifts constantly as parents move from home to home. Fifteen new students enrolled just on the first day after Christmas break. Talking with his hands for emphasis, he said the teachers have helped him tame his hyperactivity and find subjects that he loves, such as a recent science class on the water cycle. And he has a good idea what he wants to be when he grows up: a teacher.

“You get to have fun with kids and let them learn what they need to learn,” Jordan said.

Current Burns staff members will have the option of applying for jobs as Meeting Street Schools employees, but taking the job would mean forfeiting their state retirement plans and losing certain employment protections under state law. Many staff members at Brentwood are Teach for America alumni, recruited at nationwide staffing events and cocktail parties in major cities.

The first staff members scrambling for new jobs, Burns’ four kindergarten teachers, communed around a low table Friday afternoon. A student napped on a rug in the corner of the classroom, tuckered out from school-sponsored swim lessons at a nearby community center. Some of their voices shook as they considered the future.

“I was kind of shocked and a little devastated,” said kindergarten teacher Courtney Kraemer.

Kraemer acknowledged that her students’ test scores leave much to be desired, but the school is still working on the basics in many cases: food and shelter, Medicaid enrollment and job search assistance for the parents, simple human interactions like hugs and eye contact for some of the children.

“It’s so much more than academic growth,” Kraemer said. “You don’t see how much a child has blossomed.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843- 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.