Downtown Charleston parents weigh how to shape the future of Burke High

Parents gathered at the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center Tuesday to discuss the future of Burke High School.

A meeting of more than 50 downtown Charleston parents, residents and community leaders Tuesday night made one thing clear — something needs to change at Burke High School.

The question is what and how that change occurs. And that’s why a group of downtown parents organized the meeting at the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center on Fishburne Street to find out.

Parent Elena Tuerk, who led the meeting, urged the diverse, and sometimes divided community, to focus on finding common goals for parents to rally around.

“This is a really great starting point for us to remember that we have shared visions for our families and shared values,” Tuerk said.

Tuerk tasked the group with identifying what a good community school looks like and how that could translate into what’s needed at Burke. Suggestions included adding trades and bio-technology programs, identifying ways to attract more students to the school, implementing a rigorous college prep curriculum, partnering with area colleges such as the Medical University of South Carolina to provide targeted academic tracks and potentially bringing in an outside group to run the school.

But discussions about the future of Burke carried an undercurrent of racial tension over changes to the historically black school.

Many alumni spoke passionately about their alma mater, blaming the school’s decline in part on the fact that the once strong trades program at Burke was taken out in the 1990s. Some alumni feared the school has been ignored because it is predominantly black

“Burke should look like any other school and have the trades as well as academics,” said Jerome Smalls, a 1969 graduate of Burke. “We want everything any other children would have.”

While both black and white parents said they respected the history of the school, they also said they felt the school as it is today, doesn’t have a strong academic track record and doesn’t offer the rigorous curriculum they’re looking for.

The school has fluctuated from being rated at-risk to average in the last five years on its state report card. It is currently rated below average.

There’s been new talk about Burke’s future in recent months, with some saying converting Burke to a charter school could work, while school officials have said they want to use the addition of the technology program Lowcountry Tech Academy at the school as a launching point for a new curriculum.

Burke has struggled academically for years as enrollment has declined. The school currently has around 450 students in grades 7-12.

Parent George Palmer, whose 11-year-old twins attend Mitchell Elementary, said he isn’t planning on sending his children to Burke for middle school. Palmer, who is black, said he wants a strong academic curriculum for his children and that Burke doesn’t have that. He worried that unless enrollment at Burke increases, it will be difficult to add that curriculum.

“If we don’t have the population to support it, the school district cannot provide the curriculum,” Palmer said. “The most fundamental question is how do we get people to send their kids to downtown schools?”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, also attended the meeting. Kimpson said in an interview that he wanted to come and hear what solutions parents have for improving Burke, adding that increasing enrollment is a key factor in that.

The challenge, Kimpson said, is for any changes to respect Burke’s history.

“This school has served a vital interest to the black community but the community is changing and we need to create a program and curriculum that changes along with the demographics of the community,” Kimpson said. “And I think we can do so without losing the historical nature, mission and purpose of this high school.”

Diana Yarborough, one from the group of parents who organized the meeting, was pleased with the initial turnout, saying it was the “first step of several steps” to get downtown parents engaged in how to provide a strong community high school for the peninsula.

“Hopefully this is a first step in bringing everybody together around that focus,” said Yarborough, who serves on the constituent school board for downtown Charleston.

School board member Todd Garrett, who lives just down the street from Burke, said as a parent with four children in Charleston County public schools, he hopes to “keep the community united and focused on a goal of demanding change” for better education on the peninsula.

Garrett said he wants to work to build racial and socioeconomic bridges so that all parents feel that changes to Burke would serve all students — not just white families who have recently migrated downtown.

“It’s not for people coming in,” said Garrett, who is white. “It’s to improve what’s there now and to unite the community.”