For more than two years, Charleston school district officials have been fine-tuning proposals to improve equity in local education, where schools are plagued by achievement gaps, distorted attendance patterns, and racial segregation.
The board has debated and voted on a few of those proposals already, but some details remain up in the air and critics still hope for a chance to pump the brakes on others.
This Friday, members of the Charleston school board will sit down with the local legislative delegation to talk specifics on proposals to close, combine, and revamp county magnet school programs. A few days later, members are slated to move on remaining changes at high-achieving schools including Buist Academy for Advanced Studies and Academic Magnet High School.
The changes afoot now are the result of the district's long and overdue reevaluation of magnet programs and the academic resources available to all students when they walk through the schoolhouse doors.
The first sentence of a six-month Clemson University research study published last fall plainly describes the challenge faced by leaders charged with maintaining local schools: "The Charleston County School District fails nearly half of its students."
Commissioned by district leaders in December 2017, the research compiled by Clemson's Office of Inclusion and Equity outlined detailed recommendations for reforming the local education landscape. The report leaves no room for doubt that immediate changes are needed in a district where white students meet reading expectations at three times the rate of their African-American classmates on average.
"It is time — past time — to take informed, bold, and even disruptive measures," the report states. "Mere tinkering and technical change will not do."
With more than $500,000 invested in Clemson's study and follow-up group sessions with outside contractors, the district rolled out a list of plans in June for big-picture goals and changes to rework specific neighborhood and magnet school programs. The proposals, which took into account work by four Mission Critical Action Groups, indeed proved disruptive as the district took action to shift attendance zones and alter magnet programs for schools across the county.
Proposals up for consideration on Dec. 16 are aimed at increasing access to some of the district's highest achieving schools, including specialty magnet programs currently filled with mostly white, affluent students.
Still, the slew of remaining proposals, including changes at Buist and Academic Magnet, did not sit well with state elected officials from the Charleston area.
"There is a great deal of confusion, anger and disagreement being expressed to members of the Legislative Delegation about discussed changes to magnet schools across Charleston County," a Nov. 1 letter read, signed by 21 members of the county delegations asking the board to hold off on the proposals. The board acted on many of the proposals on Nov. 18, but left the big-ticket items for December's meeting.
S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, says she signed onto the letter in response to calls from her district and from the Academic Magnet community, where her son is a freshman.
"I was getting my cage rattled by so many constituents that were very angry," Senn told the City Paper. "It seemed to me like they were going in a direction that made very few people happy."
West Ashley state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, who helped rally lawmakers to draft the letter, also noted that it seemed the district was moving ahead without public support. The criticism he has heard has been related to a number of neighborhood schools, not just the elite magnet programs.
"I am hopeful that when we do meet, it won't merely be lipservice," says Senn.
Board member Cindy Bohn Coats pointed to the district's work on the proposals over the past few months, including a series of public input sessions, indicating some frustration at the timing of the letter. Nonetheless, she says she is looking ahead to the meeting.
"I don't have an issue with us having some open conversations," says Coats, who lives in North Charleston. "But it's not like we can stop nine months worth of work and just say, 'OK, we're not going to do anything else or make any other decisions until we explain to you everything we've done for the last nine months.' "
"I think some of them might want to come out of the meeting with us not doing what we're proposing to do," Coats says. "But I feel the board's role in this is to clearly explain to them what we're doing and why."
"They're their own elected officials," Senn says. "We can't really control them unless it's some really drastic things that I would be loathe to do, but I might go along with doing if we can't seem to get their attention."