With North Charleston schools under the microscope after decades of poor academic results, parents and teachers said they want to have a say in what happens next.

Speaking up at a community meeting Tuesday night in the North Charleston High cafeteria, they asked for better-prepared teachers, a consistent approach to classroom discipline, and more mental health support for students living with trauma, among other requests.

Some wanted assurance that the Charleston County School District would listen this time. Brandi Sellers, a parent of two children at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary, said she has attended at least five different education forums in the past three years and seen no change.

"It makes me very cynical," Sellers said. "I would like to know what commitment CCSD plans to give."

North Charleston schools have received intense scrutiny this year after the state singled out eight schools in the city for intervention. All of the schools identified by the state were high-poverty and majority-black, following a longstanding pattern of racial and economic segregation in the district.

Tuesday night marked the first public meeting of a Mission-Critical Action Group, one of four local input groups designed to gather ideas for a planned school district overhaul in June. About 50 people attended, including parents, school employees, politicians and activists.

The first meeting

The Tuesday meeting was moderated by John Read and Thetyka Robinson of the nonprofit advocacy group Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative. They said during the meeting that they had not been hired by the district but would be reporting back their findings to the school board.

"This is not a hidden agenda. We want to let you know that right off the bat," Robinson said near the start of the meeting.

Earlier in the day at Charleston Southern University, Cradle to Career presented an agenda for changing schools. Leaders from the group presented the findings of their latest annual report on the school districts of Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties in a report titled titled "Disruption." In it, they highlighted some persistent gaps and systemic inequities in all of the districts' schools.

The first policy idea listed on the report's agenda was that school boards should invoke South Carolina's School of Choice Law, setting up schools with certain exemptions from state regulations and allowing them to hire up to 25% non-certified teachers. The report also recommended increasing teacher salaries, shifting resources to schools with the greatest needs, and using tax credits to expand access to preschool.

In addition to the North Charleston Mission-Critical Action Group, similar groups have been established to provide input from Johns Island, West Ashley and the downtown Charleston peninsula.

All four groups will hold public meetings in addition to private meetings. They will report back to the school board in June as part of a long-term plan to address systemic inequities in the school district. A list of meeting times and locations is available on the school district website.

The members of the groups were chosen based on recommendations from school board members, constituent school board members, mayors and city council members, according to a district spokesman. The district has not provided a list of the groups' members after a request from The Post and Courier.

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Parents and teachers gather to look at divided up grade and school date sheets hung on the walls during the Charleston County School District's first public input meeting Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at North Charleston High School. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A long push

The Mission-Critical Action Groups are the latest in a series of reports, studies and input sessions directed at transforming the Charleston County School District.

In 2018, the district paid $135,000 for researchers from Clemson University to conduct a diversity study in the district. Researchers came back in September with recommendations that included integrating schools, closing schools that persistently fail, making adjustments to magnet and choice schools, and offering high-level courses at all schools in the county. 

The Clemson report echoed some of the findings of a countywide report on racial disparities commissioned by the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center in 2017. It also repeated some themes from a 1998 Harvard University study on inequality in the district.

In the past year, the district has also spent nearly $370,000 on another contractor, Reos US Inc., according to a contract provided by the district. The company, also known as Reos Partners, agreed to provide "transformative scenario planning."

Consultants from the group started with a series of closed-door meetings with hand-picked stakeholders and culminated in a public presentation that packed the Burke High auditorium on Jan. 28. Information about the resulting Charleston Shared Future Project can be found on the school district website.

District leaders including Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait have said they intend to make changes based on the findings of the Clemson study and comments from the accreditation company AdvancED. The Mission-Critical Action Groups will also present their recommendations to the school board for consideration at a June 24 meeting, according to the district.

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

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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