The news is bleak every year.
Study after study, based on the latest batch of test scores, has shown a significant number of Lowcountry students aren't prepared for college or the workforce. Low-income African-American and Latino students, in particular, face stubborn disparities in educational outcomes.
The Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative’s fourth annual regional education report, unveiled Tuesday morning to an audience of educators, lawmakers, philanthropists and community members at Charleston Southern University, acknowledged that little to no progress has been made since the nonprofit began analyzing the region's student performance data three years ago.
"Not enough has changed for us to allow the status quo ... to be satisfactory," said TCCC CEO John Read. "Because we're talking about system failure here, it’s necessary to go directly to the people who own that system — and they are in this room: civic, business, community, faith-based leaders, along with parents — to say you now need to express your dissatisfaction with the status quo and demand change."
According to the report, 48 percent of all third-graders in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties last year met grade-level standards on their state-mandated reading assessment and 57 percent met grade-level standards in math. Scores were worse in the eighth grade, where 45 percent and 40 percent of students, respectively, met grade-level reading and math standards.
But those numbers conceal wide gaps in performance among white students and students of color. For example, just 26 percent black third-graders and 30 percent of Latino third-graders met grade-level expectations in reading, compared with almost two-thirds of white third-graders. Similarly, 37 percent of black third-graders and 43 percent of Latino third-graders met grade-level math expectations, unlike 72 percent of their white counterparts.
These gaps persisted through eighth grade. Last year, 24 percent of black students and 36 percent of Latino students met eighth-grade reading standards compared with 60 percent of white students, and just 17 percent of black students and 29 percent of Latino students met eighth-grade math standards compared with 55 percent of white students.
While the tri-county's on-time high school graduation rate last year was 85 percent, the report notes, only 40 percent of students were ready for college-level work based on their their ACT scores.
"In Charleston, we are very genteel around the subject of race. It’s a subject that we don't like to talk about," said Barbara Kelley-Duncan, former CEO of Carolina Youth Development Center and current member of TCCC's Board of Directors.
"At an upper level, we say everything is OK, but if you heard the statistics this morning, you have to know that everything is not OK. Our poor and minority children, they do not have equal access. They do not get an equal education."
TCCC leaders proposed several policy recommendations for improving the Lowcountry's educational outcomes, including raising teacher pay, providing transportation to students who attend charter schools and reforming Act 388, a controversial 2006 state law that exempts homeowner-occupied homes from the property taxes that fund school operations.
TCCC is also in talks with district leaders about starting a leadership development program at The Citadel for school principals, and Durham, N.C.-based Family Connects, a program that provides free in-home nurse visits to parents of newborns. Anita Zucker, chair of TCCC's board of directors and CEO of The InterTech Group, said TCCC needs to raise $500,000 to bring Family Connects to the Lowcountry.
Read pointed to Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood a public-private partnership between the Charleston County School District and the nonprofit Meeting Street Schools that offers low-income students in North Charleston a slew of additional services, like medical and dental screenings and extended-day programming as an example of an innovation that works. Students at Brentwood routinely outperform students at other high-poverty schools in North Charleston.
"What I‘m trying to do is debunk the idea that it’s not possible to do more in different ways," Read said. "There's plenty of money spent on philanthropy all over this region doing a whole lot of sub-optimal things. Make it happen for kids at other schools in the region."