Last week U.S. News & World Report released its yearly ranking of schools across the nation. Charleston County School District immediately posted in pride that it had the top three high schools in South Carolina — Academic Magnet, School of the Arts and Wando — as well as the No. 2 school in the nation, Academic Magnet.
While the immediate celebration may be understandable, a closer look makes it less tenable.
My first reaction upon hearing of this news was one of dismay. As an educator in the Charleston County School District who knows the dynamics of South Carolina’s continual segregation in its education system, it also left me with a second reaction: dumbfounded.
Academic Magnet and School of the Arts have highly selective processes for students to be accepted. Oftentimes, those accepted come from other selected gifted programs in the county. So, essentially if you segregate the top 3% of students who usually come from very privileged backgrounds, you are going to get one of the “top” schools in the nation, but it says more about the inequality that has been created in Charleston County schools.
This is not to dismiss the hard work of the students in these schools or the good work of the teachers and administrators; the educators need more support and praise but that’s another op-ed. I know some of the teachers at Academic Magnet and they are the cream of the crop, but that is part of the issue: These schools are much more able to attract and retain strong teaching talent while other schools in the district suffer a huge teacher shortage and teacher turnover. Of course, this is guaranteed to happen when you create a school that is more selective than any private school.
The inequality is in full view when one compares Academic Magnet to the school 2.1 miles away, North Charleston High School. Academic Magnet had 100% of students pass an AP exam last year compared to 1% at North Charleston.
One hundred percent of students are reading at the proficient level at Academic Magnet compared to 46% at North Charleston. The schools are also racially segregated, with more than 90% of students at North Charleston identifying as African American or Hispanic, and almost 90% of Academic Magnet students identifying as white or Asian. Three percent of students at Academic Magnet are economically disadvantaged compared to 100% at North Charleston.
There are many amazing teachers and administrators at schools like North Charleston. Just four months ago the principal, Henry Darby, was awarded the Order of the Palmetto for the amazing work he does with students and for the families.
However, the great work of these teachers does not change the fact that when you segregate students from poor families into one school, there are going to be more learning difficulties and it will be harder to keep talented teachers. It’s not complicated.
Though more resources will help, part of the answer that no one wants to talk about is the necessity of integrating students from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds. This is important not only for student success and opportunities but also for the very fabric of our democracy.
It is perhaps the only way that we can begin to truly deal with the racism and unchecked biases that have plagued our land.
I am under no illusions that schools like School of the Arts or Academic Magnet are going to shut down at this point.
However, I hope that other school districts would not look at the “honor” Charleston County has received and try to replicate this inequitable and segregated structure. It is not a sustainable model if we care about an equitable education for all students. Much more important than being named the “top school” is ensuring that all students actually have a chance for success.
Will Davis is a behavior interventionist and restorative practices trainer with the Charleston County School District, community advocate and pastor.