Community seen key to turnaround

Kiim Johnson cheers for North Charleston High alongside Isaac Flenner, 4, and David Libbon (back) during the Cougars win over R.B. Stall on Sept. 4. Libbon is a member of the Park Circle Supporting Neighborhood Schools group as is Flenner's parents. Johnson has two sons on the team.

Outside North Charleston High's first football game of the school year, people line up to get into an event few normally attend.

Inside, blue and yellow balloons bobble around stands crammed with a blend of white and black fans. They look like the Park Circle community beyond the stadium, quite unlike the school itself.

With a Cougar interception, the crowd whoops, cheerleaders chant and the band kicks up.

It feels like a football game.

“This is what it used to be like when my son played here,” said Kathleen Luciano, the school's longtime data clerk who lives nearby, tearing up.

Her kids are grown and gone now. She's watched the school wither since. Normally, fans don't fill even a quarter of the stands.

But after The Post and Courier published its series “Left Behind: the unintended consequences of school choice,” Luciano sees hope.

The series examined how Charleston County School District policies impact neighborhood high schools that now lose half to two-thirds of students in their attendance zones to myriad magnets, charters and other public school options. Concentrations of low-income, black and special education students remain in lower-performing schools. For instance, 440 mostly black students enrolled at North Charleston High last year, roughly a third of the much more diverse 1,141 living in its school zone.

Alarmed by the findings, the Park Circle Friends Nurturing Public Schools launched a Facebook page with almost 400 followers, met with school leaders and drafted crowds to fill North Charleston High's athletic events.

School board members hail it as an example of how neighborhood schools depleted by choice should be revitalized — not by changing policies that caused the schools to shrink in the first place.

Yet at most other schools losing huge numbers of students, no diverse community groups have rallied as they have in North Charleston.

At the nearly all-black Burke High, which loses two-thirds of students in its gentrifying attendance zone to other schools, some concerned observers have noted that enrollment is stagnant, recent ACT test scores are the state's worst, and the football field is in such disrepair the team must borrow a nearby stadium.

School board members expressed concern about students left behind in struggling schools, but none reached by The Post and Courier support major changes to policies that allow so many students to transfer out.

“I personally don't want to keep parents in a school they aren't happy to have their children in,” board member Kate Darby said.

Most say public school choice policies aren't the core problem anyway. The problem is that so many parents don't want to send their kids to neighborhood schools — either because the schools haven't earned parents' trust, or parents haven't given those schools a fair chance.

“The community has to say, 'This is my school, and I care about it, and I'm going to ensure the school is doing what it needs to do,' ” board member Tom Ducker said. “Everyone talks about the board and superintendent, but actually it's a function of the community.”

High schools including North Charleston, Burke and St. John's “have lost the confidence of parents,” board member Todd Garrett said. “We need to win people back. That will relieve the 'left behind' scenario.”

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait didn't respond to requests to describe her plans or react to problems the series examined. Neither did board members Chris Staubes, Eric Mack and Tripp Wiles.

However, Postlewait did assign the district's principals a homework assignment before meeting with them earlier this month: Read the newspaper's series. Then propose solutions.

If the district has a plan at this point to boost the performance of students in these schools, board member Michael Miller said he hasn't heard it.

“I'm not sure we have a strategy to fix the mess we're in,” he said. “But something has to give.”

He blamed district leaders for failing to promote struggling schools, instead lauding its elite magnet programs that cherry-pick top students.

Miller wants the district to stop students from entering high school until they can read at grade level. Today, about 13 percent of Charleston County's rising ninth-graders start school reading at a fourth-grade level or lower. Of those students, 78 percent are black.

“You could fix Burke and North Charleston overnight,” Miller said. “If the feeder schools produce students who aren't reading at grade level, Burke and North Charleston will never be high-performing schools.”

A list of 40 proposed goals Postlewait presented to board members last week included several related to school choice:

Redesign the district's student transfer policy.

Standardize school choice options.

Recommend ways to ensure rural students have equitable access to quality programs.

Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said principals also must do a better job of promoting their schools.

She noted North Charleston High raised its 2015 ACT test results, which measure students' career and college readiness, up from a mean 13.4 composite score to 15.1 last year.

That's higher than scores from the two countywide magnet schools that draw the most students from its classrooms. Yet, until this year, enrollment spiralled downward at North Charleston High.

Change will take time — perhaps a whole generation working its way through the schools.

“Pipelines are 12 years long,” Coats said.

Back at Burke, the closure of its football field this season is the latest in a long history of slights, insisted the school's boosters who rallied Thursday outside the derelict stadium.

It's not just the football field, they said. It's what the disrepair represents.

“The issue is not to save Stoney Field, but to build what we need,” former Burke athletic director Earl Brown told roughly 50 people gathered. “The goal is to get everything for our kids that they need.”

Others agreed, venting about districtwide inequality, exacerbated by school choice policies that enable hundreds of often higher-performing students zoned for Burke to enroll elsewhere. Last school year, when Burke was both a middle and high school, 536 students who live nearby headed for greener pastures while 320 stayed at the downtown school.

However, Burke could undergo a major reorganization that would pump up its courses and add staff in an effort to lure downtown families to the school.

A new proposal would add “academies of study,” advanced study and fine arts programs, and a slew of related new programming likely would be adopted in the fall of 2016 — if the plan is implemented.

“It's an effort to try to get to a more comprehensive high school that has all the courses of study that you can find at Wando or West Ashley,” Garrett said. “For sustainability, it's going to require building the numbers at Burke.”

Principal Maurice Cannon didn't respond to requests for comment about the proposals.

The revamping would include moving Lowcountry Tech Academy, now housed at the Charter School for Math and Science, into Burke's ample unused space. It also would rely heavily on the success of the new Simmons-Pinckney Middle, a feeder school that shares the campus.

Yet the middle school opened this fall with a bit of a whimper. Expectations are high for Principal Nathan Nelson, but enrollment is only 210. When school began, key faculty positions weren't filled and the building wasn't fully furnished or equipped with supplies, District 20 board members said.

Barbara Dilligard, president of the Burke High School Foundation, led a community meeting in May to discuss Burke's future. Since then, the foundation and other groups have met with school officials to express concerns and share ideas about Burke. Some are reflected in the district's curriculum draft, she said.

“We saw they were working with what we were saying and trying to be responsive,” Dilligard said.

Burke's restructured school improvement council also will involve community members and encourage prospective families to see first-hand what goes on inside its walls.

“Part of it is marketing, and that's good,” Garrett said.

However, many downtown parents expect Burke to demonstrate quality before they'll consider the school. One is Marcus Cox, a Citadel professor whose daughters attend high-performing choice schools. An African-American parent, he lives downtown and sits on a community committee providing input on the plans.

“Many parents will not be quick to send their children there on day one because of new courses and bright, shining facilities,” Cox said. “Once a report card confirms the existence of successful programs, you will probably see an increase in enrollment and diversity. That can take a year or two at least.”

Meanwhile, more must be done for students already at Burke, Garrett said.

“We're setting them up for failure, we really are,” he said. “And we have been for years.”

At North Charleston High, a planned center for advanced studies could change the school's future.

Last fall, Charleston County voters approved a sales tax hike extension expected to generate $42.7 million to build a center somewhere in North Charleston.

One option that appears to hold widespread support among board members is to build it on North Charleston High's football stadium property.

Several board members said they likely will support closing nearby Garrett Academy of Technology's building and then moving its 700 or so students into North Charleston High, whose building has space to house them. The new center then could be called the Garrett Center for Advanced Studies.

Ducker called it a win-win. Students could get a traditional high school education in one building, then walk across the street to take higher-level and career-based courses.

Garrett, a countywide magnet school, drew roughly 300 students from North Charleston High's attendance zone and 42 from Burke's last year. Yet it no longer performs much better on standardized tests.

Chris Collins, a board member from North Charleston, opposes closing Garrett.

“The whole plan is deceptive,” he said. The real problem, Collins added, is that the school district has failed to make all schools desirable to parents.

“We haven't done our job there,” Collins said. “Every community school should be well-supported.”