Meeting Street Academy milestone

The first group of students to graduate from the fifth grade at Meeting Street Academy excitedly recite their school cheer Wednesday.

As Kimberly Manigault-Claiborne began thinking last year about what she wanted her son Peter’s final year of elementary school to be like, she decided she wanted something that would challenge him.

So she moved him to Meeting Street Academy in downtown Charleston from Goodwin Elementary School in North Charleston.

“I knew what he was capable of doing, and I wanted more educational-wise for him,” Manigault-Claiborne said. “I wanted a school that could pull all that out of him.”

On Wednesday, Manigault-Claiborne was among more than 50 parents, teachers and supporters cheering on the first graduating class of fifth-graders at the private downtown Charleston school.

Rain and thunder couldn’t dim the enthusiasm under the tent just off Meeting Street where Charleston Mayor Joe Riley congratulated the students for being the first, saying “you are here because of the dreams of many people.”

The school, which serves students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, opened in 2008 with the goal of helping what school leaders call “under-resourced” children achieve academic success.

The actual cost to attend the school is $11,500 a year, but families pay what they’re able to afford. Most of the school’s 146 students pay about $400 a year.

Riley called the school an “ambitious” dream of founder Benjamin Navarro, chief executive officer of Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group, who set out to build a successful elementary school in a historically low-income neighborhood. The school is open to any student but largely serves kids from downtown Charleston and North Charleston.

The fifth-graders sang uplifting songs before receiving their diplomas, then proceeded out of the tent amid hugs and high-fives from parents, teachers and fellow students.

The milestone is critical in validating the academy’s efforts. Meeting Street Schools, which runs the academy, is using a similar model at Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood in North Charleston, which is a traditional public school. Both schools operate on an extended school year, and have pre-kindergarten. And all students have access to an extended day program with tutoring and extracurricular activities.

Many of Meeting Street Academy’s 14 fifth-graders are going on to attend various private schools on merit-based scholarships. Several students are headed to magnet schools or charter schools.

Student Imani Hurley, who was among the first students to enroll in the academy in 2008, will head to Charleston Catholic School in the fall.

Imani’s mother, Dawnette Hurley, said she is “beyond happy” with the results of her decision to send her daughter to the new school seven years ago.

“My daughter has grown tremendously at Meeting Street Academy as far as academics, as far as a person,” the downtown Charleston mother said. “There’s nothing she can’t accomplish from this very first foundation.”

Principal Dirk Bedford acknowledged the fifth-graders’ academic achievements, saying many met or exceeded their goals for reading and math, with more than 50 percent of students scoring in the 85th percentile for those subjects. Some students ended the school year studying sixth- or even seventh-grade level subjects.

But scholastic achievement is only part of the equation, with Bedford noting “it’s equally important to us to be helping our kids become amazing human beings.”

The point, Bedford said, is to show that all students — no matter their background — can be successful in school. And that’s what the principal hopes this first class of fifth-graders will prove to the community.

“We want them to go out and show everybody what every single child is capable of,” he said.