pc-042118-ne-sandersclyde - 2 teachers (copy) (copy)

Fifth-grade science teacher Shasta Robbins (left) works with a small group of students while co-teacher Bria Barnhill works with students elsewhere in the class at Sanders-Clyde Elementary School.

A six-hour Charleston County School Board meeting June 24 covered as much policy ground as might  be  expected given that lengthy run-time. There was a lot to get through.

The school board presented a long list of recommendations to help struggling schools in downtown Charleston, West Ashley and North Charleston and on Johns and Wadmalaw islands.

The proposals were part of a community-driven effort to find “mission critical” actions that can help reverse long-standing problems that have held too many students back. By and large, they’re smart, research-based suggestions.

A central theme, for example, is closing small, failing schools in an effort to create economies of scale that will expose students to more opportunities and higher academic standards.

It’s a sensible idea. It was also extremely unpopular among parents who spoke at the meeting.

Of course, popularity shouldn’t be a top consideration when setting school policy. The needs of students come first.

But when making decisions that will dramatically affect students’ lives, it’s helpful to consider any available data to make sure that a good idea in theory is good policy in practice.

There’s surprisingly little good research on mergers between schools, and even less on mergers between underperforming and high-achieving schools, as is being proposed in some cases here in Charleston County.

The evidence that does exist is mixed enough to suggest plenty of caution.

A study of Arkansas school districts that merged after the state Legislature passed a 2004 law requiring consolidation for districts with fewer than 350 students found that students who got absorbed into larger districts generally performed slightly better than before, while students already in those districts performed slightly worse.

That law was an unnecessarily blunt instrument, however, and legislators have since made it easier for high-performing districts to get waivers that allow them to continue to operate.

Some national studies suggest that very small schools can benefit students by allowing them more personal attention. Others suggest that academic performance can improve when students are exposed to a wider array of options like advanced classes, foreign languages and arts programs.

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Locally, there’s one recent example worth noting.

Lincoln High School closed in 2016 and its students were transferred to Wando High School. The transition wasn’t initially smooth, and it revealed an appalling lack of academic rigor at Lincoln — as a general rule, grades below 60 weren’t given.

But it hasn’t been the cataclysm that some parents worried about either.

Wando’s graduation rate today is almost exactly the same as it was before the merger. Performance on English and Algebra end-of-course tests dipped slightly in the 2017-18 school year, but remains well above the district and state average.

Perhaps the most useful lesson is that school closings and mergers, like virtually any other school policy, aren’t a magic solution to improve performance. They can be beneficial or harmful depending on the way they’re implemented.

Generally, the Charleston County School Board is on the right track in proposing that small, struggling schools might be helped by combining resources to expand student opportunities. The June 24 meeting suggests that might be a tough sell.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. It just highlights how important it is to get the details right, to look at the data, and to communicate with the public, with students and with teachers on why a fresh approach might be the best way to try to resolve a stubborn, long-standing problem.

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