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Commentary: Three key areas that must be part of school reform efforts

Five panelists at a recent Charleston Forum event agreed that every child should be able to succeed in school and that the current system needs reform. While they expressed widely divergent views on how to go about immediate and longer-term reforms, some important themes emerged that bear repeating as core elements of any reform efforts in the four tri-county school districts.

The panelists — Darrin Goss, Rhett Mabry, the Rev. Kylon Middleton, Elliot Smalley and Carol Tempel — have deep experience in public education at the systems level. You can listen to the webinar by visiting The Charleston Forum website, but following is a summary of what was said on these issues:

Education financing

Dollars and talent need to be distributed unequally so they go to those with the greatest need — and in an amount sufficient to meet that need. Some should get more, some less.

Also, state funding is both overly complex and insufficient. Reform is needed in how and from whom taxes are raised and in how funds are distributed to support education, and the Lowcountry legislative delegation should take the lead.

The distribution of dollars and talent also should be changed. The best teachers and principals, not the least experienced, need to be given incentives, placed and retained in our most challenging schools. Any principal who demonstrates instructional leadership and cultural competence should have the autonomy to direct talent and dollars where the need is greatest, and be held accountable for results.

Funding early childhood development, targeted to where the need is greatest, is an essential prerequisite to financing reform.

School boards

Trustees should have experience with large, complex organizations or public education administration, or both, to provide necessary policy and budgetary oversight.

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All four of our local school boards also need to recognize the inequities of the system in their district and take steps to enact reforms.

Also, school board elections need the same level of attention from the electorate as higher political offices. While anonymous sources of campaign funds troubled some panelists, all agreed that the qualifications of the candidates should be the sole basis for election.

School innovation

An excellent school, invariably, has an exceptional instructional leader as principal with a support team sufficient to manage the facility and deal with minor administrative matters. That principal leads highly qualified, culturally competent teachers who set high expectations for children. Innovation with an equity lens has the sole purpose of delivering these assets to the schoolhouse door.

Innovation at a neighborhood school should be based on a needs assessment with neighborhood families authentically engaged and having a voice in determining what model or program is best. Parental engagement, especially in high poverty areas, is essential.

When measured strictly on the basis of results, models like Meeting Street and "community schools" work, but only when implemented with complete fidelity. Programs like Nurse Family Partnerships, Family Connects and Head Start are effective at preparing children for school. The best measurements of student achievement are both quantitative and qualitative — numbers and stories — and the numbers that matter include both "growth" and grade-level attainment.

The voters have spoken and we have the school boards that will see to the education of our children for the next two years. The panelists have offered a framework for a reform agenda, and all four school districts are urged to get started by acknowledging the racial inequity that exists within their districts. Reform may be disruptive, but that disruption is already underway and offers the best opportunity in decades to undertake real change in the interests of equity. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste.

John C. Read is the former CEO of Tri-county Cradle to Career Collaborative. He provides consulting services to six local and national nonprofits.

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