Upgrade S.C. education with Achievement School Districts

Sullivan's Island Elementary School students use iPads for an assignment on the first day of school. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

Twenty-two years ago, the State of South Carolina made “minimally adequate” its accepted bar for educating all children. Since this time, two generations have passed through our K-12 public school system with little to show for it. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled last year that South Carolina has failed in its duty to provide a minimally adequate education to our most vulnerable children, and this is no more evident than right here in Charleston. Equally evident is the urgency, purpose, and new thinking we must now bring to solving this problem.

Last school year, the five high schools with the lowest ACT scores in South Carolina were in Charleston County. The bottom five out of 220 high schools are right here at home: Burke, North Charleston, Lincoln, St. Johns and Garrett Academy had scores ranging from 12.7 to 14.1 out of 36 points.

You can’t get into a good college or receive an athletic scholarship with these scores. Ironically, per-student average spending at these five schools is over $17,910 — more than twice the district average of $8,500. In other words, Charleston’s children are failing, and I believe it is because we are failing them.

Over the past several years, I have had the great privilege of working with public school children throughout Charleston, and I agree with The Post and Courier’s March 29 editorial that we have to think big about Burke and other chronically underperforming schools in our area. The time has come for systemic change that will lift up our most challenged schools and honor the vast potential of their students.

Fortunately, South Carolina needn’t reinvent the wheel in this process. We have great educators and leaders right here in our state. And nearby states like Tennessee and Louisiana have created successful turnaround models — called “Achievement” and “Recovery” districts, respectively — that we can learn from. Following suit, Georgia lawmakers have just approved an “Opportunity” turnaround district and Texas has proposed legislation on the books.

An Achievement School District, or “ASD,” places the state’s chronically lowest performing schools in a separate district, not based on geography but on the common denominator of low performance. It brings these schools needed attention and the highest of expectations. In Tennessee, the goal isn’t to simply move schools off a “list” — it’s to change students’ life trajectories by catapulting schools into the top 25 percent in the state.

Achievement School Districts go big on accountability and autonomy. Educators in ASD schools have the freedom and power to make decisions based on what’s best for their students and families, and are held accountable for breakthrough results.

The best teachers are drawn to these kinds of environments. And unlike most charters, ASD schools remain neighborhood schools, honoring traditions that are important to communities and keeping their doors open for all zoned neighborhood students. Ninety-six percent of the students in Tennessee’s ASD are African-American and low-income. Results in turnaround districts have been promising. In Tennessee, ASD students grew faster than their peers in math and reading last year. The first group of charter schools with two years’ experience in the ASD all earned the state’s highest possible growth rating last year. And the collective effort to improve the state’s lowest performing “Priority” schools — with the ASD and districts all stepping up their games — has had a dramatic impact. Over the last two years, student proficiency in Tennessee’s Priority schools has grown four times faster than in non-Priority schools.

Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) has a much longer track record and has produced compelling turnaround results. Between 2008 and 2013, the percent of RSD students performing basic or above on state tests increased by 29 percentage points — the highest among Louisiana’s school districts. From 2005 to 2014, New Orleans more than doubled its senior college enrollment rate.

These results are just the beginning for our neighboring states, and the time has come to bring them home to South Carolina. Together with teachers, administrators, students, families, political leaders, and our devoted communities, we can change the headlines — and the future — for our state. We have the talent and the know-how to move our state to the front of the pack.

Let’s dispense with our decades-long failed pursuit of minimally adequate education. Instead, let’s use the courage and commitment we South Carolinians are known for with our own version of an Achievement School District, which can be implemented within Charleston County as well as within South Carolina. In so doing, we’ll prove what we know to be true: all children should have the opportunity to learn, and all children can learn if they are given the opportunity.

Bratton Riley, a Liberty Fellow and former board chair for School’s Out!, leads business development for Maybank Industries, LLC.