After the Post and Courier published a searing five-part series last week focusing on unequal opportunity at North Charleston High School, parents in the surrounding Park Circle neighborhood started looking for solutions.
A new Facebook group, Park Circle Friends Nurturing Public Schools, gained more than 200 members in a matter of days and set up a meeting Wednesday afternoon with several administrators from area schools. Despite the short notice and 4 p.m. start time, about 50 people turned out for the meeting in a fellowship hall at North Charleston United Methodist Church, and they came away with some pointed suggestions from school leaders. Here were the big takeaways:
1. Enroll your kids in neighborhood schools.
Many parents in North Charleston's increasingly gentrified Park Circle neighborhood have opted to send their children to schools elsewhere in the district under various school-choice programs. NCHS Principal Robert Grimm didn't mince words when parents asked how they could help improve his school, which enrolls a high proportion of low-income, disabled, and minority students and has been failing on the S.C. Department of Education report card since 2004.
"If you have school-aged children, if they are high school-aged children, my question would be: Why aren't they attending North Charleston High School?" Grimm said. "If you've got a child who is zoned for North Charleston High School, I recommend that you get actively involved in the feeder pattern early on. So if they're slotted for North Charleston, more than likely they're slotted for Morningside [Middle School], which means they're going to show up in our schools. It becomes significantly less — for lack of a better word — threatening if you start attending these schools in advance." Grimm also offered to give parents of prospective students a tour of the high school if they stopped by during the week.
2. Join a School Improvement Council.
Grimm invited Park Circle residents to get involved in the NCHS School Improvement Council, which meets once a month and consists of parents, students, faculty, community members, and other ex-officio members. "We discuss trends that we see in school, some of the things that we're trying to fix. I'm one singular voice, and people expect me to advocate for the school ... Again, it is your school, your community high school. Fight for your school." Under state law, SICs work with principals at schools that receive At-Risk or Below Average ratings on state report cards to create plans to improve performance.
3. Attend sporting events.
One Charleston Farms resident at the meeting mentioned that she attends NCHS football and baseball games to see her neighbors' children play and is often one of only a handful of people in the stands at Friday night games. Grimm said he would send the fall volleyball, football, and cross country schedules to the administrators of the Facebook group so that residents could come support the teams. "Come out," Grimm said. "But again, you're not getting a true sense unless you enter the building."
4. Partner with churches.
Joseph Williams, principal of Morningside Middle School, encouraged Park Circle residents to connect with parents from their neighborhood schools by reaching out to churches in other parts of their attendance zone. "I understand that we're talking about Park Circle, and this church is in Park Circle, but we have other communities, and if we're going to be real about it, I think there are some relationships that can be built, not just with this church but some other churches in our community that are not as privileged," Williams said.
At North Charleston High School, Grimm also mentioned that more than 80 members of the multi-campus Seacoast Church have been involved with his school for years through the church's mentoring program, which has helped provide college and job opportunities to the students.
5. Call your school board member.
While NCHS has seen renovations and new academic programs in recent years, Grimm mentioned that the school still had a wish list. In a poll last year, for instance, the No. 1 request that students had for the school was a health sciences program. At Morningside Middle, which has been split into single-gender boys' and girls' academies in recent years, some parents have said that the physical campus is long overdue for a renovation.
Chris Staubes, a school board member who attended the Wednesday afternoon meeting, encouraged parents to email him and other board members with their concerns and ideas for neighborhood schools. "Your board members are your representatives," Staubes said. "We've been elected to help do what the community wants to do. If the community has ideas ... please email them to us or reach out to us and let us know. That way we can advocate for you."
6. Be a lunch buddy.
Mary Reynolds, the newly installed principal at North Charleston Elementary School, has served in North Area schools throughout her career. She invited community members to get involved at her school as volunteers through the lunch buddies program, which is administered by the volunteer organization Communities In Schools. "That's a good time to come and be a mentor as well as enjoy lunch with a student," Reynolds said. "Lunchtime, recess time is a great time to get to know a student and spend time with them."
The first bit of advice from Principal Grimm — that upper- and middle-class North Charleston parents should enroll their kids in neighborhood schools starting now — is still a hard pill to swallow for Park Circle families who have the option of sending their children to higher-ranked magnet schools in the district.
North Charleston Elementary, for example, scored Below Average on its most recent state report card (the second-lowest possible rating above At Risk), with nearly half of its students failing the English/Language Arts portion of the S.C. Palmetto Assessment of State Standards and 60 percent failing the math section. Principal Reynolds said Wednesday night that just seven of the school's 500-plus students are involved in its gifted and talented program.
Alysha Brown, a parent who attended the meeting Wednesday, said that before reading the Post and Courier's "Left Behind" series last week, she and her husband had determined that they would try to get their son into North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary when he begins kindergarten next fall.
"This story, to me, was so eye-opening," Brown said. "It was heartbreaking for me to know that this is in my backyard and I'm in the 67 percent of people that aren't sending their child to their public school. And I was ashamed. I said, 'Look in the mirror.'"
Brown said she and her husband have since decided to send their son to North Charleston Elementary, the school he is zoned to attend.
"It's a movement," Brown says. "If we're not all saying, 'We young Park Circle parents' — like you and I — if we don't all make the decision to say, 'We're going to send our kids to North Charleston Elementary School,' I'm afraid it's not going to change, and that's the bottom line."
Amanda Hollinger, who helped organize the meeting through the Facebook group, said that she initially thought about naming the group "Future Cougars," a reference to the North Charleston High School mascot, but she realized the solution had to begin before the high school years.
"It's about caring for all of our kids, all of our schools, and frankly getting more white, more middle-class African Americans, more people supporting our schools, advocating for our schools, and attending our schools," Hollinger said.
Grimm said at the meeting that, while North Charleston High School has a bad reputation to live down, it has much to offer, including recently added programs in culinary and digital arts, the latter in a lab with new Apple computers. Grimm said the biggest disciplinary problem last year was enforcing the school's mandatory student ID policy, not the guns and fistfights that grabbed headlines in the early 2000s.
"We're not asking for your sympathy," Grimm said. "The kids there use the term, 'We grind.' Every single day, we strive to get better."
Staubes, who represents East Cooper residents on the school board, said he has seen parents attempt to launch similar movements to enroll their students in struggling neighborhood schools before, but none have worked. At Memminger Elementary School downtown, for example, the district sought to increase diversity at the majority-black school by making it a partial magnet school for global studies starting in 2009. As of this week, 31 of Memminger's 315 students are white, according to a district spokesman.
According to Staubes, many of the parents who had vowed to send their children to Memminger backed out in the end. "They wanted to all hold hands and jump off together, but they wouldn't do it," he said.
Parents at the Wednesday meeting were seeking ways to personally help change North Charleston schools, but a large part of the P&C series that inspired them was actually about how the school district's long-term push to increase magnet school options across the county had allowed neighborhood schools to atrophy. Last year, for example, 1,141 students were zoned for North Charleston High School, but only 439 attended the school, according to the newspaper's analysis. Hundreds of students from the NCHS attendance zone opted instead to enroll in magnet and partial-magnet schools like Garrett Academy of Technology and Military Magnet Academy.
"Nearly 90 percent of [NCHS] students are black in an area that's more than a quarter white, and virtually all left are poor," reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes wrote.
School-choice initiatives were a hallmark of previous school district Superintendent Nancy McGinley's administration, including a push to provide equal access to magnet schools in every geographic area of the district. But in the past year, African-American community leaders have begun to criticize magnet schools, particularly the prestigious Academic Magnet High School, where less than three percent of students are black in a district that is 42 percent African-American.
Asked whether the P&C series had inspired the school board to reconsider its approach to school-choice policy moving forward, Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said Wednesday night, "I do believe in school choice. What will make them choose North Charleston High School? That's the question that we need to be answering as board members."
Coats added that she saw a double standard in regards to how authorities treat gifted children and disadvantaged children.
"What happens is, we as a society think it's OK to take the smartest children in the world, the absolute crème de la crème ... and think nothing of taking those kids and putting them in a separate building away from all the other kids in the district because they are special and unique, and focusing unique programs to them that don't apply anywhere else," Coats said. "But if we try to do that with students who are struggling, that's when you come into federal discrimination and 'Why aren't you blending?'"
Staubes said after the meeting that school-choice initiatives should be used as laboratories to test out new ideas to be used across the district.
"If we have school choice, which I do agree that school choice is a good thing, then why don't we use that for what it's worth and learn from the different school choices what is working in the different schools?" Staubes said. "There are little experiments going on across the whole district. Find out what's working in those schools and bring it back to the traditional schools."