In the 65 years since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, several mostly black elementary public schools in Charleston have yet to be integrated to anywhere near the city’s white-black racial proportions of 60/40. But finally, these schools may become racially diverse.
This elusive outcome would put an end to what then-Chief Justice Earl Warren, in just one sentence, described as the great and permanent harm of school segregation by race: “To separate [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
What Warren saw so clearly in 1954 has been demonstrated in Charleston in a racially reversed way: A cluster of predominantly poor and black schools continues to underperform despite many rounds of energetic and expensive reforms.
In a recent and blunt video message to the community, Charleston schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said: “There are far too many children, particularly of color and poverty, who have been disserved by the system. ... We have to have the courage and the will to do something about it.”
Later this summer, the Charleston County School Board will vote on a raft of “Mission Critical” recommendations that propose, among major action, to integrate and end racial disparities at its mostly black and underperforming schools. To a great extent, the recommendations aim at achieving what Warren and his fellow justices saw within reach almost two-thirds of a century ago.
Perhaps the most significant recommendation is the merger of Memminger Elementary School with another school that is its performance and racial opposite — Buist Academy, a high-performing, mostly white and middle-class countywide magnet school that also is downtown on the peninsula.
Buist has 479 students in its elementary and middle levels, compared to Memminger’s 344 students. Both schools lack racial diversity, but from opposite directions. While Buist is 82% white and 8% black, Memminger is 81% black and 14% white.
Under the merger plan, grades one through four would be set up at one of the two schools and grades five through eight at the other, giving the new school two levels, with the middle school feeding off to Burke High School, also on the peninsula, which would be upgraded with “opportunity and rigor” that were equal to the district’s nationally ranked Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston.
Darrin Goss Sr., who facilitated the “Mission Critical” team that produced the Memminger-Buist merger plan, described it as “disruptive.” But since Memminger has been unable to meet most academic goals for decades, maybe tearing everything apart isn’t too unreasonable.
I put two questions to Goss, president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation. I asked him if the mostly white, middle-class and high-performing Buist students would be in the same classrooms with the mostly poor, black and lower-performing Memminger students. If so, would that create racial-social-educational challenges that would have to be met?
Goss’ answer: “My hope is that we would allow students to attend racially diverse classrooms where they are challenged and supported academically and socially. A poor black or white kid could be in a classroom with another child with means or middle class but in the appropriate range of academic ability. I wouldn’t put those performing at the highest levels with those performing at the lowest levels.”
My second question had more implications. Most students at Memminger are the children of poor, black families, some of which grew up in intergenerational poverty. Would the Charleston school system put together a robust parent-family engagement that would especially empower the most vulnerable parents — single mothers — to be full partners in the education of their children?
Goss’ answer: “We actually included in our recommendation a community-parent engagement position for each school. I think this is critical not only for merged Buist and Memminger but also for schools like Sanders-Clyde and Mitchell. This is something that the school district needs to support and be very intentional about. But both sides – the school staff and the parents – have an equal responsibility to make the engagement program work.”
Goss stressed that when a student acts out at school or fails to do his or her homework, the parents have to act.
But wouldn’t a well-designed parent engagement program help produce cooperative behavior?
“Yes, we are on the same page,” Goss said.
So, after nearly two-thirds of a century, just maybe Charleston is ready to begin fulfilling the intent of Brown v. Board of Education.
Tom Grubisich, a board member of the Charleston Forum, writes about local race issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.