A group of protesters disrupted the Charleston County School Board meeting Monday at the district office, claiming that the district had failed in its duty to educate black children and was treating a majority-black charter school unfairly.

The board was in the middle of giving a special recognition to students when leaders from the National Action Network and community members carrying signs in support of Prestige Preparatory Academy walked to the front of the room.

"One hundred years you fail our kids, and we're not taking it no more," shouted Elder James Johnson, a local leader with the National Action Network.

As Johnson led the crowd in chants including "No justice, no peace," Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait stood up and left the room, followed by most school board members. Only Kevin Hollinshead and the Rev. Chris Collins, two of Postlewait's most vocal critics, remained to listen. The meeting never resumed.

The school district called the protest action "extremely disappointing" in a statement by spokesman Andy Pruitt late Monday night.

"Rather than wait for one of two scheduled times for public comments, the group shouted and disrupted the meeting as elementary students were being called to the front of the room to be recognized for their accomplishments. The Board’s only course of action was to adjourn the meeting after two attempts to restore order failed," the district said.

"The Board and District are committed to working with any group who wishes to constructively pursue solutions. However, attempts to disrupt a meeting with children in attendance is an unacceptable method of engagement," the statement continued.

"We’ve been trying to be civil with this school board for many years," Johnson said in an interview after the meeting. "They closed all the black schools, we did nothing about it. They want to close Prestige despite the fact they have 50 students and all of them are passing."

The district still has several majority-black schools, including Prestige, whose nearly all-black student population is in violation of the state law requiring racial demographics at charter schools to reflect the communities they serve.

Board view of protest

Protesters stood and faced the board podium during a Charleston County School Board meeting on Monday, March 18, 2019. Kevin Hollinshead, one of two school board members who stayed to listen to the protesters, took a photo from his seat. Kevin Hollinshead/Provided

District leaders including Postlewait have spoken frankly for years about the district's stark racial and economic segregation and its failure to educate minority students to the same level as their peers.

After commissioning several studies in 2018 that recommended integration of the schools and an overhaul of some majority-black schools in North Charleston, the district started a process of community input with a goal of bringing major policy changes to the board for consideration this summer.

Prestige Preparatory Academy was founded in 2016 to serve elementary school boys from anywhere in the county. The school's leaders have claimed they are serving students the district abandoned in other schools.

After a rocky start that involved logistical problems with the building the school occupied on the North Charleston Navy Yard, Prestige faced further difficulties as most of its teaching staff quit in the first year, some citing poor leadership and a lack of basic supplies.

Some parents and teachers say the school has since found its footing, citing test scores that show students who stick around are making progress. But the district has threatened to shut the school down after this academic year, citing poor academic performance and financial problems caused by low enrollment.

Vidonne Colston, a student interventionist and parent liaison at Prestige, had planned to attend the meeting with families from the school after circulating an online petition to save the school. She said she was caught off guard by the protest.

"Today’s events were pretty unexpected, and I’m personally happy that it happened," Colston said. "The district and the board need to see that there is going to be some public fallout and backlash if they move forward with their plans to close the school."

At the meeting, Johnson vowed to return at the next board meeting and lead further protests. 

"We will sit on the top of the Cooper River Bridge and stop traffic until someone comes up with a plan to educate these kids," Johnson said.

"It’ll be the same thing next week," he added. "You better come with a plan for educating our children."

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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.