It all started during a Fourth of July party. Several downtown parents, sitting around enjoying a break from work, decide they want do something about their frustration with the Charleston County School Board and the poor public reception of the district's constituent board, a group of elected officials whose duties include overseeing personnel decisions, monitoring transfers, and drawing attendance lines.
The problems plaguing schools on the peninsula have been making headlines this summer: controversy over the admissions process at Buist Academy, the fourth annual unsatisfactory report on Burke High School from the State Department of Education, and the ongoing rift between constituent and county school boards. Even holiday festivities couldn't distract parents from a need to actively address such problems downtown, in school District 20.
Carol Aust, a District 20 resident whose daughter will most likely attend private school next year, left the party and started an e-mail loop for anyone interested in working together to strengthen downtown by improving its schools. The response almost overloaded her e-mail, she says, and her phone was attached to her ear for days. Soon, District 20 Families was born, with 57 families ready and willing to take action on behalf of District 20 kids. Each of the callers, Aust says, had the same basic message: What can we do to make it better?
Aust says downtown should be a place where people want to not only visit but to live. And that requires quality public education.
Certainly, the possibility of parents outside the peninsula forging downtown addresses in order to attend Buist Academy moved families to more closely examine the admissions process at the only excellent-rated school in the area, Aust says. But the organization wants to form a community voice on issues spanning the entire district.
The competition to get into Buist, the district's academic magnet school that offers smaller classes and a diverse, intense academic curriculum, magnifies the greater problem: a lack of viable educational options for families downtown, Aust says.
The group wants to coordinate a meeting among Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, District 20 parents, and the constituent board to address — according to the group — what it sees as a lack of attention to what are severe educational problems.
Last week, the group met with Mayor Riley to get help facilitating that meeting and with a list of problems, including funding for the constituent board and establishing an address verification process at Buist that resembles those at other magnet schools in the area.
Diana Ruttonsha is a part of District 20 Families, although her children (ages one and five) are not yet enrolled in any District 20 school.
"To expect that everyone downtown should be able to pay for private school is crazy," Ruttonsha says, pointing out that people can demand a legitimate public education because they contribute to public schools with taxes.
The group counts among its members nonparents and parents with kids who attend, will attend, or have attended District 20 schools. Aust says a majority are from Wagener Terrace, Radcliffeborough, and Hampton Park neighborhoods and reflect a racially diverse crowd. Individuals from James Island and West Ashley are involved too.
"Many who have joined have young children," Aust says. "They realize that if they don't speak up now, nothing is going to change."
And change is the buzzword for this group. One of its first orders of business was unanimously endorsing Doug Berger to run for the District 20 spot on the school board. Berger has one daugher at Buist and another who was not accepted this year and is waiting on a transfer under No Child Left Behind. Berger says District 20 Families reflects the upswelling of grassroots efforts to improve the district. Once the 829 signatures on his petition are verified, Berger will officially be in the running for a spot that Aust says demands a stronger voice than Boardmember Lurline Fishburne has offered.
Aust worries that without change, downtown faces a threat of people leaving. "To preserve the infrastructure of the community and city, we need to do something about the schools."
That idea is not new. Nor are the underlying problems of the school district itself. Perhaps with such an eager group, though, the results could be.