Racial segregation, school choice, and systemic failures of the education system were the focus of frank conversations Monday night at a forum hosted by The Post and Courier in North Charleston.
"There is a built-in system of inequities inside the school district that we must deal with," said Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait. "What we have is a system failure. It's not a failure of individuals within the system."
The forum was the fifth of its kind hosted by The Post and Courier following the publication of "Minimally Adequate," a November 2018 investigation of South Carolina's historic and ongoing failure to provide quality education to children. After hundreds attended forums in Charleston, Greenville, Florence and Columbia, Monday night's forum in the Trident Technical College nursing school auditorium focused in part on problems specific to Charleston County schools.
Postlewait was joined onstage by Military Magnet Academy teacher Natasha Akery, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Regional Advancement and Talent Tina Wirth, and Charleston Promise Neighborhood CEO Sherrie Snipes-Williams.
Postlewait gave a presentation on the district's three-year process of studies and meetings that are expected to culminate in a list of policy recommendations for the school board to consider in June.
The school district has not announced specific actions it could take this summer, but one key finding of reports commissioned by the district as far back as 1998 is that school choice, magnet schools and public charter schools have contributed to the current pattern of stark racial and economic segregation. The district has approved more charters than any other district in the state besides the statewide charter districts.
Akery spoke about her own personal transformation while teaching at Military Magnet, a majority-black school in North Charleston. She said newcomers to schools like hers need to earn the trust of students and their parents.
"What works at Academic Magnet and the demographic there is not going to work for my students, and I don't mean that in a deprecating way," Akery said. "If you are an instructor, if you are a teacher, if you are an administrator, you need to know your people. If you don't know your people, you're not going to succeed."
"I will say that it's hard to know your people if you're constantly moved around," Akery added. "So when teachers leave, when principals leave, we constantly have to start over and over and over again. And that's harmful to our kids."
Akery's comments touched on a massive problem facing the state as a whole: the ongoing, worsening shortage of teachers, which has hit high-poverty and rural schools the hardest. Multiple panelists and audience members brought up the statewide teacher advocacy campaign to raise teacher salaries and shrink classroom sizes, both of which could help stop the bleeding as thousands of young teachers quit the profession every year.
Wirth pointed out that teachers in South Carolina earn less on average than travel agents and not much more than sanitation workers in North Charleston. She also highlighted the strain caused when top employers have to import qualified employees from out of state.
"The 28 people coming in from out of the area every day, it's actually corrupting the entire ecosystem," Wirth said. "It's probably why it took some of you longer to get here to this event today — because our roads are clogged, our housing prices are increasing rapidly because supply is not keeping up with demand."
"So that's the argument from the economic imperative for a qualified emerging workforce. But there's a moral imperative for us as well," Wirth said. "Systems produce what they're designed to produce, and in the South in particular, where people are born — your ZIP code — says far too much about what your opportunities for success look like."
Snipes-Williams discussed the continued struggles of the Neck area schools her nonprofit serves. She said she was heartbroken that the local school system continues to leave minority students behind.
"It's broken for children who are black and brown, and it's broken for children who are poor," Snipes-Wiliams said.
Monday night's forum was sponsored by the advocacy group Charleston RISE, Panera Bread, and Trident Technical College.