Put yourself in the shoes of a Burns Elementary teacher

Edmund A. Burns Elementary on Dorchester Road in North Charleston will be run by a private company next year.

The students at Burns Elementary are in for big changes next year.

They will move to Spruill Avenue, several miles from their Dorchester Road campus, and some classes will be held at a different location. Kids will see a lot of new faces.

See, the Charleston County School District has decided a private company will run the perennially struggling school. That’s a lot of change.

Unfortunately, these kids don’t do change well.

For years, the community has demanded better education for kids at Burns — a school with 550 students, nearly all of them poor and black.

People say the system is failing those kids, and it is.

But those folks need to know that the people most worried about those students are probably the teachers and administrators at Burns.

That says a lot about them.

See, these educators have been unfairly catching all the blame for the school’s woes, its poor test scores and assumed lack of progress. They’re the ones who — to hear some tell it — may be on the chopping block this summer.

That would be a tremendously bad decision, one based on the politics of blame.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

But don’t blame the teachers — they have been working on this for years, with little help or support.

Teaching is not easy in any setting, but Burns throws monumental challenges at educators every day.

The attendance zone for Burns Elementary has one of the highest incarceration rates in the state. It is the highest of high-crime areas. The children there deal with things on a daily basis that most kids can’t even imagine.

A lot of families who send their kids to Burns are homeless or live in motels. More than 80 percent of them don’t have transportation and, when their kids miss the bus, that’s just it.

Burns teachers provide the supplies their students use, most of them bought out of their own pockets. Sometimes they give them clothes. One kid, who regularly skipped school because he was embarrassed that he had no clean clothes, now brings his laundry in on Friday. The teachers showed him how to work the school’s washer and dryer.

If these kids participate in any after-school activities, it’s because the teachers drive them. If a student forgets their homework, these teachers often drop their own family obligations and deliver it.

When Burns students show up, and many of them are late, they simply aren’t ready to learn. Some haven’t been taught to wash their hands, button their pants or answer when spoken to. Many don’t know how to use a pencil.

This didn’t happen overnight. It’s generational, it’s bigger than any one simple solution.

You know, it’s hard to instill the importance of standardized testing in kids who are most worried about survival. Math, well, that’s a secondary concern.

That is what Burns teachers deal with every day, before they can start a lesson. It is a completely different world than the affluent suburbs of Charleston.

The fact that the school has had only 7 percent turnover in the past two years is amazing.

The teachers who are there choose to be there. Despite their struggles, they feel like they are making a difference.

The state has actually rated Burns’ “growth” as average the past couple of years. Given where they start, that’s an achievement in itself.

Out of 57 teachers at Burns, the state rates 15 of them “highly effective” and 40 others “effective.” The remaining two just got there.

The company that will run Burns has shown promising results at Brentwood, although it hasn’t started on 3rd, 4th and 5th grades yet — the time when the train usually goes off the tracks.

Meeting Street Schools promises two teachers per classroom, on-site social workers and therapists. They will have the autonomy and money to do things differently. That’s all good.

Those folks are smart, mean well and have good ideas.

But the staff at Burns has on-site social workers and therapists, too. They asked for more help, but the district has doled it out haphazardly.

The teachers at Burns take tremendous joy in every little step of progress, and they are usually small. But now they are worried about what the future will mean for their gains.

They worry not only about the students, but the families who have come to rely on Burns as much as their children. Most communities rally around their schools; on Dorchester Road, Burns rallies around the community.

A popular part of this new arrangement is that a private company can fire teachers at-will. People who demand change like the sound of that. But Meeting Street hasn’t fired anyone from Brentwood yet, and would be wise to make few changes at Burns — aside from sending reinforcements.

That’s because the teachers at Burns care, they know the kids and are trying their damnedest to help them.

And if they aren’t there on opening day, the new management might have a hard time rounding up their students — much less teaching them anything.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com