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Editorial: Big changes for Charleston schools? School board, parents must work together

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The International Baccalaureate program would remain at Memminger Elementary, but it would no longer be part of a magnet program under a plan being considered by the Charleston County School Board. Here, Erin Laughlin teaches 2nd graders in the program. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s no surprise that parents are upset about proposals to close some Charleston County neighborhood schools and partial-magnet programs.

Change is difficult, particularly if we don’t have reason to believe it will lead to improvement — and especially when it involves our children’s education.

Parents chose the partial-magnet schools because they believe their children will get a better education there than in their neighborhood schools. And in many cases, it was the magnet schools that convinced parents to keep their kids in public schools rather than sending them to private schools, which drains our schools of the engagement and political support they need to succeed over the long haul.

Parents with children in the shrinking neighborhood schools that could be merged or closed are equally concerned that their children would suffer from the change, and suspicious of the district’s motives.

It’s not the case, as one parent said at a recent forum, that the job of the school board is to listen to parents’ concerns and “do what they want you to do.” It is the board’s job, though, to recognize parents’ angst and the importance of their active engagement. It is the board’s job to adjust its proposals when parents raise legitimate concerns, for example considering less extreme ways to reduce inequalities in partial magnets, and ensuring it will provide a strong curriculum if a magnet program is eliminated.

So we’re glad to see Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and the school board providing forums, and trying to better explain what the complex problems are that they hope to address.

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The problems are connected, and grew out of and exacerbated a vicious cycle: The district’s partial-magnet program was designed to energize schools and reduce a trend of declining enrollment, by offering a special curriculum with extra funding. The idea was that both the old and the new students would benefit from this arrangement.

But while better principals, better teachers and extra funding can make a big difference, a school’s success is also influenced by what the students bring to school, so the neighborhood schools suffered from losing some of their best students, and also from the loss of sheer numbers. And because the district didn’t provide transportation to the partial-magnet schools, the most economically disadvantaged students often were the ones left behind.

For their part, partial-magnet school parents need to be willing to recognize that economic and racial inequities are problems and that when the district spends more on the schools their kids attend, it spends less on other schools. And neighborhood-school parents need to be willing to recognize that many schools are simply too small to provide children with a broad spectrum of programs and opportunities.

The district also must communicate specific plans to improve neighborhood schools if most partial magnets are eliminated. “The minute you eliminate these, have you hired the replacement teachers in the neighborhood schools to make these exact same offerings? I don’t see this happening in real time,” board member Cindy Bohn Coats said at a meeting in September. “I see you taking away a solution, hoping that it builds a population that eventually increases the program offering, and I don’t think that’s the right way to do this.”

It’s understandable that parents feel like they were caught off guard by the district’s proposals, some of which appear to back away from the district’s important commitment to public-school choice. But the answer isn’t to simply reject those ideas. It’s to suggest alternatives. It’s to work collaboratively to hone the suggestions and alternatives. It’s to trust that district officials are acting in good faith — and for district officials to extend that same courtesy to worried parents — as they try to solve a problem with no simple solutions.

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