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Buist Academy in Charleston is facing an issue it was created to address — a lack of diversity in downtown schools. The countywide magnet school serves mostly affluent white students, but the Charleston County School Board is looking at ways to overhaul schools. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

More than 30 years after its creation, a Charleston County magnet school is now facing an issue that it was created to address — the lack of diversity in downtown schools.

When Buist Academy for Advanced Studies was founded in 1985, its purpose was to recruit white students and integrate majority-black schools on the peninsula.

Now the elite kindergarten through eighth-grade countywide magnet school serves mostly white, affluent students.

But Buist might see some major changes as the Charleston County School Board makes decisions designed to overhaul schools and address education inequities across the district.

One proposal to combine Buist with Memminger Elementary School has resulted in a wave of criticism from concerned parents, more than 50 of whom met Thursday night at a town hall hosted by board member Kevin Hollinshead. 

An uncertain future

The district's attempts to offer solutions aimed at diversifying Buist has left many parents frustrated and confused. 

A team of community leaders presented several bold "mission critical" suggestions in June's board meeting, one of the most controversial being the proposed Buist/Memminger merger.

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A proposal to combine Charleston's Memminger Elementary School with Buist Academy to increase diversity in downtown schools has caused an uproar among concerned parents. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Memminger, a majority-black school, was identified by the S.C. Department of Education in its 2017-18 report card as unable to adequately prepare its students and given an "unsatisfactory" rating.

In the wake of the mission critical proposal, Buist parents have been increasingly vocal about their concerns.

Parents of Buist and Memminger students, educators, community members and district officials met Thursday night to discuss the proposed changes.

Charles Cole, a parent of a rising first-grader at Buist, said he was frustrated by the district's lack of communication. 

"It doesn’t seem like there’s a plan here. It doesn’t seem as if there’s any forethought here. That leads to uncertainty. And uncertainty causes stress and frustration," Cole said. 

Devon Wade also has a rising first-grader at Buist. 

"Playing Tetris with the schools and our children's lives creates long-term issues for our entire community," she said. 

Advocates say the merger wouldn’t lower Buist’s standards and would be beneficial for all students involved.

Darrin Goss, who co-facilitated the downtown mission critical action team, defended his group's suggestion, describing how students of all levels sitting around a table together "only helps those students on both ends."

The proposal included a suggestion to use one school campus for kindergarten through fourth grade and the other as a campus for fifth-eighth grades.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait emphasized that the idea of a merger still needs to be further discussed with parents, teachers and community members.

“At this point, any talk of a merger is one idea for consideration — not a decision,” Postlewait said in an email to Buist parents and staff.

'A continuation of the past'

While the proposed merger has sparked emotional debate over the past few months, the original Buist diversity debate can be traced to its creation.

“It’s a continuation of its past,” said Sallie Ballard, who worked at the school for 22 years as both assistant principal and principal. “Buist has always been a hot topic of education for downtown. And that hasn’t changed."

Buist was created to attract white students downtown and avoid desegregation by busing. Its doors opened amid a pending federal lawsuit that argued Charleston County schools were segregated. 

A federal court found the district was desegregated and in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education. Buist, along with Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School and Jennie Moore Elementary School, was created to increase integration downtown.

The idea was that Buist would further integration by drawing students away from their neighborhood and private schools through daily foreign language classes and an all-day kindergarten.

It worked. Enrollment skyrocketed, and Buist became a successful school that parents from across the district wanted to send their children.

Just one year after its opening, more than 2,500 students applied for 300 available slots at Buist. Today, the number of applicants continues to consistently outweigh the number of slots available. 

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Memminger Elementary School Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in Charleston.Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

But before Buist, there was Memminger. 

Memminger, a small majority-black school on Beaufain Street, was in danger of being closed due to low enrollment in the 1970s. The school was transformed into a "model school" in 1976 as a way to attract students of all races. Enrollment increased dramatically and the students became more diverse.

But power struggles and controversy between the downtown constituent board and the county school board caused Memminger's model school status to eventually fall apart. Confidence in the school waned, enrollment dropped and Memminger was, once again, majority-black.

Buist was opened almost a decade later in the wake of Memminger's model school failure. 

Dividing lines

When Buist was created, quotas were established. The school enrolled 60 percent non-minority students and 40 percent minority students each year.

Students who applied to Buist were sorted by their minority status and grade level. Then, they were entered into a lottery system that also classified students by where they lived and if they had a sibling already enrolled at Buist.

This process made a student’s chances statistically better of getting in if they fell into one of the “protected” minority classifications, according to Janet Rose, who served as the district's executive director of assessment and accountability. 

These classifications included African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians/Alaska Natives and Asians/Pacific Islanders.

All applicants were sorted by ethnicity using this system until 2002.

Then came Larry Kobrovsky. 

Kobrovsky, a Charleston-based attorney, served on the school board from 1993 to 1998. 

While on the board, he met two parents during a Buist admission appeal hearing in the late-'90s.

One parent was European, and the other was from the Philippines.

“They brought the child in and we had to decide whether the child was a minority or not. Depending on what the child looked like, I guess,” he said in an interview last week. “And I just said, 'This is a disgrace.' We can’t make decisions based on what the child looks like or who the parents are.”

Kobrovsky filed a federal lawsuit against the school board in 2002 challenging the quotas, arguing the ethnic definitions were arbitrary and unconstitutional. 

Eventually, the school board agreed to change the enrollment requirements and removed the quotas.

“It wasn’t a black and white waiting list,” Kobrovsky said. “They color-coded the whole world.”

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Buist Academy in Charleston could see some major changes as school leaders attempt to address a lack of diversity at the school. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Critics said the removal of the quotas caused Buist’s demographics to get to where they are today — 82 percent white.

"Now we have two schools that are majority white. And that wasn't why they were created," Rose said, referring to Buist and Academic Magnet High School, another school created to integrate downtown. 

Kobrovsky said the intent of his lawsuit wasn’t to make the school inequitable. 

“It was my job to eliminate what was clearly unconstitutional. The solution was up to the school board,” he said.

Looking forward 

Buist, a school that was designed to integrate downtown, enrolled less than 8 percent black students last year.

Hollinshead, who hosted Thursday's meeting, said he doesn't think any major decisions should be made until a year from now, and that all proposals need more input from community members. 

"We have to have the right people at the table — black and white — to get it right," he said. 

Some school board members today said part of the diversity problem at Buist is due to its small size. 

"When you have a school that only has 50 students per grade, and you have a district that has 50,000 kids, that in and of itself is going to create problems. Period," said board member Cindy Bohn Coats. "Problems of equity. Problems of access. Problems of operations."

Kate Darby, the board's vice chair, said she thinks Buist should be expanded, and that moving forward, the board will likely host town hall meetings for community members to share their thoughts. 

As the start of the new school year approaches, many questions still remain about the future of Buist. 

The next scheduled board meeting will take place Aug. 5. 

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Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.