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Drastic changes could come to Charleston County Schools by the fall of 2020 as leaders in South Carolina's second-largest public school district aim to provide equal access to a quality education.

A list of proposed changes approved by a school board committee Monday gives a glimpse of possibilities in the near future:

  • Redrawing school attendance lines "to give all schools the best chance for success," particularly in North Charleston, downtown Charleston and West Ashley. Many of the district's schools are starkly segregated along racial and economic lines, and previous studies commissioned by the district have recommended finally integrating schools to ensure socioeconomic diversity.
  • Consolidating small middle schools in downtown Charleston and West Ashley to provide students with more electives and other opportunities.
  • Opening a second Early College High School, replicating a program that has shown some early success with first-generation college students since opening in 2017.
  • Using ZIP codes as part of magnet school applications to help boost enrollment from areas where magnet students have not traditionally come from.

None of the policies has been adopted yet, but school board member Todd Garrett described the document as "the marching orders going forward."

District administrators will hold stakeholder input meetings throughout the first half of 2019 where anyone can comment on the document. District staff plan to present a final list of recommendations to the school board on June 30. Most of the changes would be set to take place at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, according to the document.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait acknowledged that some of the changes are ambitious and will likely spark public debate. She encouraged the board to stay the course.

"You can't walk 10 miles into the forest and get out in five," Postlewait told the board in a Strategic Education Committee meeting Monday. "You cannot expect with the mission-critical actions that we're recommending, that things will change overnight."

The board approved the document, labeled "Mission-Critical Actions," in a 6-0 vote with the Rev. Chris Collins abstaining and Board Chairman the Rev. Eric Mack absent. The board has previously held rancorous debates on school closures and racial issues, but it united behind the guiding document after relatively little debate.

Collins, a North Charleston resident and the board's longest-serving member, expressed some skepticism about the value of redrawing school attendance lines.

"When I consider North Charleston traditional schools, there are hardly any white children ... mostly minority students in those schools. How will changing the attendance lines breed any success in the classroom?" Collins said.

"I don't think it was our intent to come back with solutions; we were simply trying to imagine everything that might need to happen," Postlewait said.

Under the 1967 state law that created the Charleston County School District by merging several smaller districts from across the county, the county-wide school board does not have the authority to draw school attendance lines. That authority rests with the constituent boards, lower elected bodies that govern geographic areas within the district.

District officials have also broached the topic of eliminating the constituent boards, whose powers have been eroded over the decades by successive court decisions, policy revisions and changes to state law. Such a change would require an act of the state Legislature.

Charleston County is one of a handful of districts in the state that employs its own lobbyist. That lobbyist, Clara Heinsohn, could have her plate full this year as the board considers pushing the state to reduce teachers' paperwork requirements, fully fund pay raises for teachers, and revise school funding laws like 2006's Act 388 that have hobbled the state's education system and hurt the district's bottom line. The legislative agenda, like the rest of the document approved Monday, is not finalized yet.

The list of proposals is the product of at least a year's worth of research, community meetings and paid consultant work that centered on racial imbalances and wide disparities in performance across the district.

The district spent $135,000 on a diversity study by Clemson University's Office of Inclusion last year, and some recommendations from the resulting 56-page report — including redrawing attendance lines — made their way into the document that the board saw Monday. The district has since hired an international consulting agency called the Reos Group as part of the district's Charleston Shared Future project, which held multiple conclaves in late January.

The document also drew from a long-term planning document known as the Strategic Plan and from a list of recommendations by the accrediting organization AdvancED.

Prior to the latest round of reports, the district received a similar list of recommendations related to racial imbalances from Harvard Education Professor Charles Willie — in 1998.

Garrett, who serves as chairman of the board's Committee of the Whole, said he wants to make major changes in his time remaining on the board.

"I'm only going to be on this board for two more years, and I will be forever regretful if we don't do a better job of integrating our schools," said Garrett, whose term expires in 2020. "The way our schools are set up is from 1967. ... They carved up communities and created separate schools for black and white students."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.