SOA Holiday Spectacular (copy)

The Charleston School of the Arts presented its Holiday Spectacular Concert in December.

Kathleen Fox went 4 for 6 last year and is shooting for a perfect eight this year. She’ll find out how well she did on Thursday.

Fox, 52, is not some high-paid athlete putting up Hall of Fame numbers, but an ex-librarian turned serial entrepreneur who is developing a killer track record of giving affluent East Cooper kids a leg up getting into the Charleston County School of the Arts, one of South Carolina’s best schools.

In a state known for lousy schools, SOA and Academic Magnet, side-by-side in North Charleston, are ranked as South Carolina’s two top public high schools by U.S. News & World Report. Getting into either is like winning the lottery for parents who can’t afford (or would rather not pay) the $25,000 or so it costs to go a top private school like Porter-Gaud or Ashley Hall.

Charleston’s elite magnet schools are supposed to be meritocracies, where the best and brightest win based on test scores, writing samples and auditions. It’s a myth, of course, because not everyone starts the race in the same place. Some are from wealthy families, some poor families. Some have two parents, some have one. And a lucky few have gifted coaches like Kathleen Fox cheering them on and showing them the way.

“That doesn’t mean that the kid who practices with David Beckham is better than the one who doesn’t,” she told me in the quiet morning hours before her Creative Arts of Mount Pleasant (CAMP for short) began filling up with artists, young and old. “It just means that he has the advantage of practicing with David Beckham.”

And practice they do. Now in its third year, CAMP helps students, mainly fifth-graders, preparing to apply to SOA’s visual arts program with their seven-piece portfolio (a landscape, a portrait and a still life are required, no cartoons allowed). In addition, Fox runs mock 30-minute drawing tests like the ones the kids will face on that high-stakes audition day for SOA’s middle school. She and the kids then critique what works and what doesn’t. Is the contrast right? What about the texture?

CAMP also has classes for kids applying to SOA’s creative writing program. Fox and other teachers help them polish the short story and two poems they will need to apply. Then there are timed practice sessions for the writing tests the kids will face, followed by a critique. And repeat.

“It is a fantastic school,” Fox says of SOA. “For an arts kid, it is the mecca.”

CAMP is part of a cottage industry funneling kids into the magnet schools. There is Art Connects Us in Mount Pleasant and Black Tie Music Academy, which has nine locations in the Charleston area, for young musicians. There are tutoring and testing shops for parents with ambitions for Academic Magnet.

Susan Irish, who runs Fabulon in West Ashley and has about a half dozen kids at SOA, says the preparation isn’t cheap. “It’s about a thousand-dollar investment,” she says. But then that is a bargain compared with a big private-school tuition bill every year.

This is how it works and a good place to start to understand why Charleston’s premier magnet schools look the way they do. Last year, fewer than 1 in 3 of the 543 students who applied to Academic Magnet got in. At SOA, the odds are even worse: 1 in 7 of the 1,200 applicants made the cut.

The result: 14 percent of SOA’s 1,110 kids are black. At Academic Magnet, only 4 percent of the 655 students are black — down from 23 percent a dozen years ago. This in a district where 37 percent of the students are African-American. This on a campus that was once home to historically black Bonds-Wilson High School.

There is nothing unique going on in Charleston or South Carolina; it is the same story all over the country. Last month, only seven of 895 spots in next year’s freshman class at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most selective public school, went to black students.

Places like CAMP and Fabulon are super places, there is no question about it. What parent doesn’t want their children going to the best school they can?

But for too many kids, too many families, the system is just plain unfair and stacked against them. There is no way to say that two students — one who practices with David Beckham, and one who doesn’t — are starting in the same place and should be judged in the same way.

The resulting growing inequality is threatening the very fabric of our democracy. We ignore it at our peril.

Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.