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Editorial: Ready to re-imagine schools? Again? Charleston plan worth pursuing.

France Macron

Commissions would work from the ground up to design turnaround plans for 21 struggling schools under the Reimagining Schools plan the Charleston County School Board tentatively approved Dec. 13. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Charleston County residents can be excused if they aren’t excited about the new Reimagine Schools initiative that the school board endorsed last week.

It does, after all, have a bit of a “Here we go again” feel: Just two years after the Charleston County School District approved parts of its Mission Critical plan to improve education at low-performing schools while also addressing long-simmering concerns about equity in the highest-performing — approval that came after two years of formulating plans, taking public comments and reformulating the plan — the school board has now tentatively agreed to embark on a whole new plan … to plan how to fix some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

But what we need to keep in mind is that while Mission Critical appropriately focused attention on our most struggling schools and has made some promising changes in some of them, it got significant blowback from parents, teachers and community members who complained they were shut out of the process. Partly as a result of those frustrations, the district rejected or delayed some crucial components. And then COVID hit.

Lauren Herterich, who was elected to the school board a year ago and was instrumental in helping bring Reimagine Schools before the board, calls it “a restart.”

“Mission Critical had some success but not the success that we were looking for,” she told us. “And I think that everyone’s had a chance to kind of step back and look at the lessons we learned, and also everyone’s seen the impacts of the pandemic.”

Under the plan up for final approval Jan. 10, the Coastal Community Foundation would convene three commissions, each made up of school board and constituent board members, teachers, parents and community members, to gather public input and create turnaround plans for struggling schools in four constituent districts. The commissions for constituent districts 9, 20 and 23, in the Johns Island, downtown Charleston and Hollywood areas would bring their proposals back to the school board by June, and the schools would begin implementing the changes in August. The North Charleston proposals would be presented by November, with implementation set to start in August 2023.

Perhaps as important as the what is the who: The foundation is a well-respected philanthropic organization with a proven track record of supporting our community, donating $345 million over the past quarter century to fund existing nonprofits and to envision, seed and spin off such vital organizations as the Lowcountry Food Bank, One80 Place and the Center for Heirs Property Preservation.

Foundation CEO Darrin Goss told the school board that the Reimagining process was designed to start and finish with community input and would be built around three key ideas: All students are capable of learning; schools must be tailored to the particular needs of students, particularly in low-income communities; and students who were behind before COVID fell further behind in the past year and a half and need dramatic intervention, recovery and support.

Mr. Goss and Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait were key advocates of a new law passed earlier this year that allows school districts to have multiple schools of innovation like the Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood, and Mr. Goss clearly hopes that this process will result in transforming more schools into schools of innovation, managed by nonprofits. But as he noted, it will be up to the commissions and ultimately the school board to decide, and it’s possible that the commissions will recommend district-managed schools of innovation, such as North Charleston High School, or retaining the traditional management model.

Whatever the decision, it’s important to remember that the school district remains in control even if it converts some schools to schools of innovation; unlike with charter schools, the district can (and should) retake control of a school of innovation if it isn’t performing as hoped.

Critics complained last week that the Reimagining Schools proposal didn’t include details about how progress would be measured or what changes would be made, and that the proposal was sprung on the public without much transparency, but those criticisms miss the point — in some cases it seems deliberately. There are no details because the commissions will decide what to do with each school. And until this point, there really hasn’t been anything to be “transparent” about: The foundation has been working for the past few years to design the proposal for a process that will be entirely transparent.

There’s also a misunderstanding about the proposal’s $32 million price tag: The district is only being asked to spend $805,000, to cover the costs of administering the process. Most of that will go to nonprofits to host the meetings and keep the public engaged. The foundation is also asking the district to set aside $31.1 million to implement whatever plan the commissions, schools and school board agree to undertake once the process is finished.

That commitment is necessary, Mr. Goss explained, because the community is exhausted from the Mission Critical exercise, and people will be less willing to engage in another planning process without some assurance that their recommendations won’t just sit on a shelf, as many of the best Mission Critical proposals did.

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