BY THE REV. JOSEPH A. DARBY I recently had the honor and pleasure of being the commencement speaker for the Burke High School Class of 2012, an experience that proved to be both inspiring and instructive. The young people who marched in, resplendent in their caps and gowns, were as exuberant as any class graduating from any high school and showed no signs of being rowdy or of being discouraged or resentful over the State of South Carolina’s labeling their soon-to-be alma mater a “failing school.”
Twenty percent of Burke High School’s 2012 graduates earned LIFE Scholarships from the State of South Carolina. That speaks well for their academic prowess, for LIFE Scholarships require a cumulative 3.0 grade point average based on the South Carolina Uniform Grading Policy and a score of 1100 on the SAT test or of 24 on the ACT test, the standardized predictors for success in undergraduate study. Thirty-eight percent of those graduates were offered or awarded a total of $1,696,330 in scholarships.
There are three lessons to be learned in what I saw at Burke High School’s commencement, especially for those who favor “alternative educational choices,” those who advocate diverting public education funds to private schools and those at the South Carolina Department of Education who will soon consider Burke’s fate.
The first lesson is that when it comes to school success, the means of evaluation matters. Cumulative standardized tests scores are helpful, but they can’t adequately measure individual student motivation. Graduation rates are helpful, but can be deceptive when they include students who began high school but dropped out before graduation.
I’m far from an expert on education, but I do believe that the measurement of success should take into account those students who strived against societal perceptions and achieved in schools where many pundits claimed that achievement was impossible.
The second lesson is that Burke High School, like every public school, has a mix of motivated students with strong family support and challenged students from struggling families, for public schools don’t have the luxury of being selective.
Not every member of Burke’s class of 2012 graduated with honors, but those who did exerted the kind of positive peer pressure that makes other students work harder.
I commend those in the Burke High School Class of 2012 for not exercising their option to transfer to other high schools.
They not only succeeded in graduating, but their presence made for a more diverse school where academic success is as highly regarded as vocational or athletic success. When the best students leave a school, struggling schools get worse instead of better.
The third lesson is that public schools should not be judged on sometimes carefully crafted perception.
I felt compelled to share these thoughts because precious few positive stories on schools like Burke make it into the media, and the stories that do appear usually emphasize things other than academic achievement. That’s sad, because those who only hear about the challenges faced by schools like Burke buy into the “lie” that they’re quagmires of violence and mediocrity while overlooking their visible strengths.
Those who advocate reduced funding for schools like Burke and who strive for an educational future that emphasizes charter and private schools would do well to visit and volunteer in our public schools. They’d find that regardless of the school, students with a thirst for learning, educators who care about the well-being of all of their students and supportive families are in abundant supply.
More than 102 years have passed since a school board trying to avoid school desegregation established Burke Industrial School with a goal, as expressed by the then superintendent, of training “cooks, maids and delivery boys.” Dedicated educators, parents and students refused to follow that game plan and made Burke a center for achievement.
I commend Principal Maurice Cannon and the administration and faculty of Burke High School for reviving and building upon that tradition of achievement, and I commend the Class of 2012 for their success.
Their shared accomplishment speaks to the real story of Burke High School, not the contrived story crafted by those who would seek to dismantle public education and turn back the clock of progress.
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church.