The Charleston County School District has ditched plans to hire outside groups to run its worst-performing schools, leaving the future of education at 15 campuses in the district's "acceleration zone" unclear.
Instead, officials will focus on seeking waivers from certain state education regulations, like a longer school year or looser teacher certification requirements, and giving schools more autonomy.
In August, the district started accepting applications from organizations interested in managing low-performing schools.
The plan was met with suspicion and disapproval from some community members who feared more partnerships would lead to privatization and school takeovers.
This week it was revealed that seven of the eight potential applicants interested in comprehensive school management were removed from further consideration.
Four of the five applicants from the first round of applications were rejected last month, and all three proposals from the second round of applications were removed from consideration at Monday's board meeting.
“We did not feel that the organizations that applied had any proof they could improve the schools,” said board member Priscilla Jeffery, who served on the vetting committee consisting of board members, community members and educators.
Instead, the district will work with principals and teachers in the 15 low-performing, high-poverty schools identified as “acceleration schools” to explore what waivers from state rules they’d like to pursue, Jeffery said.
The waivers could give schools flexibility on the length of the school year, the length of a school day, the number of paid days of teacher training and requirements for teacher certification.
For example, if a school receives a waiver for teacher certification, a concert violinist “might be able to teach strings at our school without having to go back and get courses first,” Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said.
The district will continue to meet with schools this month, and specific waivers will likely be brought before the board in February, she said.
During Monday’s committee of the whole meeting, board member Todd Garrett worried about “self-diagnosing” the issues in the low-performing schools. But board member Cindy Bohn Coats said the district has “never asked for structural relief” from state regulations before.
“The thing that's new today is that we have principals willing to say, ‘This is an onus on our district that the state put on us, and we'd like to have relief from that,’ ” Coats said.
S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said educational waivers from state regulations are common. However, it’s less common for low-performing schools to seek waivers as a means of accelerating student academic growth, Brown said.
“Districts try different things and try to be innovative. Some laws may put a district in a bind,” Brown said. “And just like not every child is educated the exact same way, communities may need to try something new, so it allows them some flexibility and some innovation to better serve their students, and that’s what the goal is.”
Once specific waivers get approved by Charleston's school board, they’ll need final approval from the state Board of Education.
Since some of the schools that might request waivers are already receiving extra state and federal support, the board has “a little bit more vested interest in what exactly is happening there,” Brown said.
If the district brings the waivers to the state within the next few months, Brown anticipates the changes could be implemented in time for next school year, depending on their complexity.
Many of the 15 acceleration schools are in North Charleston. Some have been cited as a state priority or in need of comprehensive support and improvement, given their unsatisfactory overall and student achievement ratings.
They include Chicora, Mary Ford, Hunley Park, Pepperhill, Stono Park, Memminger, North Charleston, Burns, Mitchell, Goodwin and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools, Morningside and Simmons Pinckney middle schools, as well as North Charleston and Burke high schools.
Despite removing most of the applicants from the pool of potential partners, the district has requested more information from one applicant: Entrepreneurial Ventures in Education, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit also known as Phalen Leadership Academies. As of Monday, the district had not received any additional information, Jeffery said.
The district is still interested in pursuing partnerships with other applicants that were not interested in comprehensive school management and overhaul, Jeffery said, including Engaging Creative Minds, the College of Charleston and the University of Virginia.
District spokesman Andy Pruitt said the district does not have any plans to open up another round of applications for more partnerships.
More information about the partnership proposals can be found at www.ccsdschools.com/domain/1717.