Charleston County school leaders got a detailed look Monday at an ambitious plan to overhaul magnet schools across the county. A decision on the plan will come later.
Many recommendations were focused on partial magnets, public schools with a specific theme or focus that often receive extra resources. Such schools serve a geographic area but also some students from outside that area.
A committee of district staff members recommended eliminating the majority of partial magnets by the 2020-21 school year, a suggestion committee members said they hoped would reduce inequities across the district.
“The basic recommendation is that we do away with partial magnets in their current form,” said Kate Darby, the board’s vice chair.
Nine of the 13 existing partial magnets would lose their partial magnet status entirely. A few others would be converted to constituent magnets, schools with specific, defined attendance zones. The school transfer process would also remain in place.
If extra seats remain, students could apply to the school and would be accepted "as space allows," according to the presentation that the county staff gave to the Charleston County School Board.
Schools that could lose their partial magnet status include Laing Middle, Jerry Zucker Middle and Memminger Elementary, among others.
Partial magnet schools took off around 2007, according to Lynda Davis, the district's interim chief academic officer. While some of these schools resulted in academic gains, Davis said partial magnets have also brought "unintended consequences."
"Those schools have been a drain both financially and in terms of student population on our neighborhood schools," she said.
Davis and Darby agreed that partial magnets often pull students away from the school they were originally zoned for, also known as "neighborhood schools." This has resulted in lower enrollment and, consequentially, fewer resources, they said.
“Sometimes we see an exodus from certain schools with people going to partial magnets because they perceived that they were better," Darby said. "And really, they might not have been."
Darby also cited a Clemson University study released last year that outlined how school choice and magnet schools perpetuated inequalities throughout the district.
Under the recommended changes, current partial magnets would keep their current funding for at least one or two more years.
While some board members expressed their support for the recommendations, others were critical because the presentation did not include specific recommendations to improve neighborhood schools.
"The minute you eliminate these, have you hired the replacement teachers in the neighborhood schools to make these exact same offerings? I don't see this happening in real time," said board member Cindy Bohn Coats. "I see you taking away a solution, hoping that it builds a population that eventually increases the program offering, and I don't think that's the right way to do this."
Some parents worry that removing a school's partial magnet status will hurt students from areas with low-performing neighborhood schools.
Christine Pinson has a second-grade daughter at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary School. Since she lives outside of the attendance zone, and her daughter is able to attend the school due to its partial magnet status.
She worries that removing the school's partial magnet status would dim her children's future education. Pinson said she and her husband have even been considering options like homeschooling or moving to a different district to avoid sending her daughters to their neighborhood school.
"The school that we're zoned for is a failing school," she said, "and we wouldn't be doing the best for our child to send her there."
She said she left her school's PTO meeting Friday night and found other parents of North Charleston Creative Arts also felt frustration about their school's future, "primarily just due to the lack of concrete information that's been provided to anyone."
"While we don't want the school to be impacted at all, we are willing to accept that changes do have to happen at times," she added. "And if changes are happening, if we can at least know what those changes are, and exactly why they're being made, so that our families can plan accordingly."
If the School Board ultimately approves the partial magnet changes, Pinson's daughter wouldn't be affected: All current students would be allowed to remain.
But the proposed changes could take effect in the 2020-21 school year, and that would impact Pinson's other daughter, a rising kindergartner.
"Our hope was to apply to see if she would be accepted into the same school, and right now, we don't even know if that's an option," Pinson said.
Darby said the next step in the process is getting input from community members. No formal action relating to partial magnets recommendations was made Monday, but Darby said the board may vote on some of the recommendations next month.