Group discusses alternative school districts for Charleston County

Paul Bowers/Staff The Meeting for Charleston’s Children’s featured panelists were (left to right) Louisiana Recovery School District Deputy Superintendent Dana Peterson, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, former New Schools in New Orleans CEO Neerav Kingsland and former Tennessee Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic.

Philanthropist Anita Zucker kicked off the Meeting for Charleston’s Children Wednesday morning by saying, “This isn’t a sales pitch for any one approach.”

But three of the four national education experts participating in the panel discussion at Charity Missionary Baptist Church, and moderator Elliot Smalley, have helped lead statewide “turnaround” school districts that relinquish control of low-performing schools to charter companies or nonprofit organizations. The main discussion focused on how charters and state takeovers have worked in other states.

“New Orleans is still a work in progress,” said Dana Peterson, deputy superintendent at Louisiana’s Recovery School District. “We haven’t figured it out ... but we have done some things that led to significant change.”

A statewide charter district, the RSD took control of many New Orleans public schools as the city rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Around the same time, thousands of teachers and educators in the city were fired, and the local teachers’ union was dissolved. Today about 20 percent of teachers in the district come from Teach For America, a program that allows uncertified college graduates to earn their teacher certification while working in schools for several years, according to Peterson.

Pointing to improvements in test scores and graduation rates, Peterson said an important factor in the district’s success was empowering school leaders to make their own decisions without a lot of meddling from the district office.

“We really don’t serve as an operator of schools,” Peterson said. “We serve as a regulator of schools.”

Panelist Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, said parents’ enrollment decisions under the district’s school-choice model also have a real impact on the bottom line at charter schools.

“To be real about it, every kid in New Orleans is $10,000 to that school,” Kingsland said. “If I as a family say, ‘You’re not doing what you need to be doing for my kid and I’m going to this other school,’ that school loses $10,000. That’s real power.”

The Meeting for Charleston’s Children came on the heels of a new report from Zucker’s Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative that found nearly two-thirds of third-graders in the tri-county area are reading below their grade level — a bleak early indicator for high school graduation and career readiness.

Seeking to resolve similar deficits around the region, particularly in rural districts, lawmakers in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina are considering the creation of turnaround districts. In addition to Louisiana’s model, some are looking to Tennessee’s Achievement School District, formed in 2011 to bring the bottom five percent of schools into the top 25 percent, often by entrusting their management to nationwide charter companies and local nonprofits.

But in the case of the first six schools that the ASD took over, four are still in the state’s bottom five percent according to scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. Two have inched upward into the bottom six percent. A 2015 Vanderbilt study found that the ASD had “no statistically significant effect on reading,” although the parallel iZone program run by local school districts had performed better.

Former ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, who sat on the panel Wednesday, said his schools had shown meaningful gains in math and science proficiency while spurring the local school districts to improve.

“The pressure of the ASD ... has actually given them the ability to create the iZone, and you’re seeing progress in the iZone schools and them doing things differently that they wouldn’t have done if the ASD didn’t exist,” Barbic said.

The lone panelist who had not been involved in a turnaround district, District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, said that after affluent families fled to charter schools and suburban districts in the 1990s, her district made strides by deciding to focus on its core mission of educating students. In a unique partnership overseen by the mayor of Washington D.C., other municipal departments have taken control of everything from facility maintenance to food service.

“D.C. was supposed to be the place where the school district just kind of fizzled into oblivion. We have a robust charter sector and lots of parents choosing that,” Henderson said. “My testimony for you today is if we can do it, you can do it too.”

The push for a turnaround district in South Carolina is still in its preliminary stages, with some lawmakers tossing the idea around in committee meetings and paying visits to charter schools in Louisiana and Tennessee. It has already attracted the ire of some educators and experts.

Roger Smith, executive director of the S.C. Education Association, attended the meeting Wednesday and said he thought it was disingenuous to claim it was not a “pitch” for a particular reform model.

“To me it’s like looking for a silver bullet, and it’s really not one,” Smith said.

Smith said he is more interested in expanding access to preschool, pointing to the example of South Carolina’s own Lexington County School District 4, where voters approved a tax increase in 2007 to build a new early childhood education center.

Paul Thomas, a Furman University education professor and former Spartanburg County high school teacher, said turnaround districts in other states have only reinforced some of the shortcomings in education of poor and minority students, including racial segregation between schools and the hiring of inexperienced teachers through programs like Teach For America.

“They’re replicating the problems they’re supposed to be solving,” Thomas said.

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