New programs draw attention to struggling downtown schools 

Magnetic Attraction

The principals, teachers, and parents know how their schools look on paper. The latest state report cards call Memminger Elementary "Below Average" and put Mitchell Elementary one notch lower, "At Risk." With that kind of record, you couldn't buy a house to sleep in. Hell, you couldn't buy a car to sleep in.

But the schools are looking to the future, taking applications for new magnet programs in the fall. Memminger will focus on global studies while Mitchell begins a math and science program. The hope is that the new offerings will appeal to their communities and, more importantly, parents skeptical of offering their prize children to a school with a questionable credit report. Slots in each program will be open to students countywide as long as there's space.

The Charleston County School District provided $40,000 and two additional full time teachers to help five schools develop these magnet programs.

Calling it "a step in the right direction," parent Jalia Murry is excited about the opportunities that Mitchell Math and Science Elementary will provide for her daughter, second-grader Brazil.

"There's math all around us," she says. "This is going to give her the core values she needs."

The appeal of a public school program that challenges students can be seen in the hundreds of parents disappointed every year when their tykes don't win seats at the popular Buist Academy, a magnet school on Calhoun Street. Many of those sad faces end up at one of several private schools rather than turning to their nearest struggling public one.

The concept for Mitchell's math and science program goes beyond the coursework. The school will also be using more inquiry-based instruction, requiring teachers to spend less time rattling off important dates and names and more time challenging students through problem-solving.

Mitchell principal Dirk Bedford is planning summer sessions to acclimate teachers, and he's sending eight to a math and science teaching academy hosted by ExxonMobil that focuses on innovative learning methods. The school will also be relying on partnerships.

"If we tried to do this by ourselves, it wouldn't happen," Bedford says.

A partnership with MUSC could lead to medical students offering lessons in science classes and job shadowing opportunities with doctors. The school is also developing nature and science partnerships with the College of Charleston and groups like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bedford is also working with a local bank to open a makeshift branch in the school, with students as tellers.

"Every school is going to be teaching math and science," Bedford says. "We're working on those experiences to enrich and apply what they're doing in the classroom."

With a focus on global studies at Memminger, every student is already receiving Spanish lessons and principal Anthony Dixon hopes to offer other languages in the future.

The larger concept is to incorporate world lessons about history, geography, and culture into the daily curriculum. For instance, students learning about biology in their regular classroom will get a lesson that reinforces the topic in Spanish class. Students and instructors at CofC will also be partnering with the school and developing programs.

Some parents will likely hold out to see how the first year or two go, but the principals want some parents invested on day one.

"I want to have parents come in and work with us," Dixon says.

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