Turnaround schools Statewide district explored as answer to chronic failure (copy)

Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood pre-K teacher Sarah Petkus incorporates arm movements as she teaches math to her students. Public charters and public-private partnerships like the one between Charleston County Schools and Brentwood could become more common as the district accepts applications for future partner organizations. File

Despite the efforts of educators, philanthropists, community groups and parents to improve education in some of Charleston’s failing schools, the district has made it clear it’s open to outside help from outside groups. 

In August, the Charleston County School District started the process of expanding public-private partnership schools.

During a Sept. 16 school board meeting, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait identified 13 potential partnership schools that would be given top priority, many of which have been named by the S.C. Department of Education as in need of comprehensive support and intervention. 

“The schools that were named as possible partnership schools are named because we've not been able to sustain achievement gains that are being made there,” Postlewait said. “That doesn't mean that a partnership might be the best option for them. But we felt that it was important to name the schools where we have to make better progress.”

Partnership schools are still under the jurisdiction of the local school district but have much more flexibility and decision-making authority on how funding is spent and the hiring and firing of staff. They operate through a contract with the district that spells out expected outcomes and the per-pupil funding formula, among other things. Part of the agreement is an expectation to achieve better results than comparable schools. 

Although partnership schools have more flexibility than traditional schools, they also have a higher degree of accountability, Postlewait said.  

In Charleston County, there are two existing partnership schools, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood and Meeting Street Elementary @Burns. Both are funded by Sherman Financial founder Ben Navarro and receive millions of dollars in extra support from the nonprofit that runs them. Both have been praised for their strong academic results with students from high-poverty North Charleston neighborhoods.

There are things offered at the Meeting Street campuses — such as longer school days, two instructors in each classroom and a longer school year — that traditional public schools might not offer, according to Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown. 

“It’s a great model to use. ... We’re looking at things that they’re doing within these schools that are working and seeing what we can do as a state if we invested a similar amount of public funds,” Brown said. 

The district has received three responses from groups interested in becoming school partners, Postlewait said, although only one has formally submitted an application. According to the district's projected timeline, finalists will be selected in October and the district will make a decision regarding possible partners in December. 

Chris Allen, a Meeting Street Schools representative, said the organization will not be applying. 

Partnership schools don't necessarily have to be supported by philanthropic organizations like Meeting Street Schools, Postlewait said. The district's application for partners seeks "qualified individuals or entities with a proven track record in increasing student achievement," either public or private.

For example, one group that has expressed interest in creating a partnership school is a group of Charleston County educators, Postlewait said. 

But public-private schools have also been met with criticism and skepticism from some parents, board members and community groups. Some worry there isn't enough district oversight once third-party entities start operating schools.  

“Public money should be spent in public schools with public oversight,” said board member Priscilla Jeffery. 

"We need to spend our dollars on our schools, our employees, our programs and the schools right where they are," said board member Chris Collins.

Board member Kevin Hollinshead also said he opposed adding more partnership schools.  

"I can’t speak for any other partnership, but what Ms. Jeffrey describes is exactly what our partnership school is," Allen said. "Public money is being spent on a 100 percent neighborhood public school that has public oversight in the form of a governing board that contains public school district leaders."

A contract between Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood and the district obtained by The Post and Courier states the district provides funding for the school based on a "lump sum per pupil equivalent to the per pupil expenditure at neighboring schools from which the School draws its enrollment." The district uses a similar funding model for Meeting Street Elementary @ Burns, but also contributes an additional $3,000 per pupil, the school's contract shows. 

"That $3,000 helps defray a portion of the extra dollars required to provide three-year old kindergarten, an extended school day, an extended school year, additional teachers and after school programming," Allen said. Meeting Street's money covers these costs fully at Brentwood and partially at Burns. 

Last year, the district provided $15,314 in per pupil funding for pre-K through fifth grade at Brentwood, and Meeting Street Schools contributed an additional $599 per student. The nonprofit fronted the entire cost for the schools three-year-old pre-K program at around $15,900 per student. 

Others critical of adding partnership schools have questioned why it's necessary to bring in outside support at all.

"I like the results of Meeting Street Academy, almost all of the results, but some of our schools are doing almost just as good," Collins said. 

“If we're told that partnership skills are great, because they allow flexibility and creativity and outstanding leadership, why can't we, as a public school district, institute that same flexibility and cultivate that same outstanding leadership?” said Matthew Cressler, a parent with two children at Memminger Elementary School. 

Board members Eric Mack, Cindy Bohn Coats and Joyce Green voiced their support for partnership opportunities as a fresh approach to solving the decades-old problem of improving low-performing schools. 

“I am sick and tired of us kicking the can down the road of where the resources need to be had, and the scores that we’ve seen in some of these schools are not where they need to be. It has been that way for years,” Mack said. “And we have tried numerous different things to try to improve it, and it has not. We have to make some changes. How many years will have to go by before we bring about changes in the schools?”

Postlewait said the district could reasonably add three or four partnership schools per year, with the ability to manage no more than 12 total. If a school is converted to a partnership model, all displaced employees would remain employed somewhere else in the district as long as their evaluation was satisfactory. 

The district is working to schedule community meetings that will take place over the next six to eight weeks, Postlewait said. 

No vote on partnership schools has been taken. Board members will discuss further once they have received all applications from interested third-parties. 

The list of possible partnership schools includes Chicora, Mary Ford, Hunley Park, Pepperhill, Pinehurst, Stono Park, Memminger, North Charleston and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools, Morningside and Simmons Pinckney middle schools, as well as North Charleston and Burke high schools. 

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

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.