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Editorial: What makes sense, what doesn't in Charleston schools overhaul

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Parents protested at the Charleston County School Board's Nov. 11 meeting to consider sweeping changes to improve the district's failing schools and improve diversity in top schools. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Charleston County has some of the best schools in the state and nation, and also more than our share of the worst. Many of the worst schools are full of students who are poor and black, while many of the best are full of students who are much better off and white.

Much of the racial segregation simply reflects the fact that our housing patterns are based largely on economics, and there’s such a strong correlation between race and socioeconomic status in our community. Regardless of the cause, though, the effect is devastating. We can’t afford to keep failing to educate all of our children, we can’t overlook the potential of any of our students, and we can’t have a school system that is perceived as unfair.

The district’s mission-critical proposals attempt to address those problems by using innovative approaches to improve the worst schools and diversifying the best schools, while demonstrating that increasing diversity does not have to mean lowering standards. The plan, much of which is up for final approval Monday at the School Board meeting, is based on a set of solid recommendations:

•Create robust preschool and family engagement programs, starting in North Charleston, in order to help close the learning gap between the poorest children and middle-class children by the time they start school.

•Turn the 15 lowest-performing schools into “acceleration” or “choice” schools, which operate under strict control of the district but are granted flexibility from some state regulations, for instance by allowing them to provide longer school days or years or hire some professionals to teach without certification. The district is soliciting bids from nonprofits to operate these schools under contract, as it does with Meeting Street Schools, but most probably will remain district-run. The district also is committed to providing “experienced, successful leaders” for the schools, and working with the College of Charleston and other local, state and national organizations to teach principals and teachers how to teach children from extreme poverty.

•Combine tiny schools — most are high-poverty — so they can provide advanced programs that larger schools are able to offer.

Make changes to magnet and partial-magnet schools in order to increase economic and racial diversity or, in the district’s words, “ensure fair representation.”

•Where things get dicey is when you start applying those proposals to actual schools. In order to create those preschool programs and transform those failing schools and increase diversity, the plan combines, reconfigures, moves or closes more than 40 of the district’s 87 public schools and programs. Understandably, parents and community members are upset about such drastic changes.

We have been encouraged by the willingness of the school board and administration to listen to complaints and make adjustments, and we hope this spirit of conciliation will extend to the proposals to close several partial-magnet programs.

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District leaders are right to be concerned that allowing parents to move their children from neighborhood schools to partial magnets created, as Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait put it, “the unintended consequence of further segregating based on race and socioeconomic factors.”

But parents deserve to have choices about which public schools their children attend, and offering those choices has played a vital role in keeping higher-income parents engaged with the schools, which is crucial to maintaining the district’s political and thus financial support. So it doesn’t make sense for the district to take away those choices, especially before it improves the neighborhood schools, which the superintendent says is a priority for her.

The board wisely deferred action on the partial-magnets last week. We urge board members to reiterate their commitment to school choice today by withdrawing the proposal altogether and working to find other ways to make this course correction.

Overall, though, we believe Dr. Postlewait’s recommendations make sense.

Proposals to diversify award-winning Academic Magnet High School and Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, for instance, are carefully designed to ensure the schools don’t take the easy approach of simply lowering their standards.

A third of incoming freshmen at Academic Magnet would come from the highest-poverty schools, but they would have to meet the same requirements current students do; that means some of the students who otherwise would be on the waiting list would be enrolled, and some of the students who otherwise would be enrolled would be on the waiting list. It’s a good approach as long as it sticks to that commitment and doesn’t devolve into diluting the school’s rigor.

Buist’s K-2 classes would be phased out in order to increase enrollment in the 3-6 program, with most of the new seats reserved for students from high-poverty schools who score at the 75th percentile on standardize tests, as do 70 percent of the current students. In other words, those new low-income students would have higher scores than at least 30 percent of the current student body.

Dr. Postlewait told us it was particularly important to “make a statement about the fact we believe giftedness or human capacity to learn is equally distributed across all populations,” and that “We might not get racial diversity, but we will get economic diversity.” She said the changes to magnets would have the added benefit of forcing the district to “look more closely at what happens in feeder schools.”

But as important as it is for the district to provide equal opportunities to all high-achieving children, it’s even more important to provide a solid education for all the students who don’t score anywhere near gifted status. And the plans to improve early childhood education, combine tiny schools, foster innovation and bring the best teachers and principals to low-performing schools show great potential to do just that.

Editor's note: This has been corrected from an earlier version that misidentified Meeting Street Schools.

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