Five years ago, Chicora Elementary was a failing school slated to be closed by the School Board. The building was deteriorated, the teachers were frustrated, the kids were struggling, and the parents were uninvolved. The school is located in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood in North Charleston, a community with over 85 percent rental properties. With few owner-occupied properties, the community remains in a constant state of transition. It has the highest crime rate in the city of North Charleston, which in turn has the 12th-highest crime rate in the nation. Nearly 100 percent of Chicora Elementary's students live below the poverty line, the highest poverty level of any school in the Charleston County School District. Today, the school is a laudable success story. The school continues to meet its objectives, and last Friday they were taken off the list of failing schools after making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) two years in a row. In May, they became the first and only school in South Carolina to win the National Change Award, which "recognizes schools that have made significant improvements from being an underperforming school to becoming exemplary." Chicora is one of only six schools nationwide to receive the award this year. Fittingly, the school sits on Success Street, where it's become a small example of how, with the right initiatives and incentives combined with plain old common sense, a school with everything against it can still succeed.
It all began with a change in leadership at the school. Mary Reynolds took over as principal in 2001. Together with Title 1 advisor Camille Lee, Reynolds began implementing the Charleston County School Board's Plan for Success. Following this plan, Principal Reynolds focused on five strategies for success: recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, encouraging and fostering parental involvement, tapping into the resources of the community, celebrating and rewarding success, and implementing fair and consistent discipline practices. The most important of these, according to Camille Lee, who took over as principal when Reynolds was reassigned, is training and supporting good teachers. A special demo classroom has been set up, where teachers can be observed through a one-way mirror for feedback on their teaching techniques. Weekly staff development meetings often have specialized workshops geared toward improving teacher quality.
To encourage parental involvement, the school has an open-door policy. The goal is to build a familial atmosphere between parents, administrators, and teachers. The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), nonexistent in 2001, now has over 50 percent participation. The school hosts a monthly "Parents' Power Hour," informing parents about school issues, teaching them appropriate ways to advocate for their children, and empowering them to actively participate in their children's education.
The school partners with individuals, businesses, and organizations in order to meet needs they otherwise would do without. Local businesses donate uniforms, school supplies, food, and printing services. They currently have 75 adult mentors, filling the social and emotional gaps the school cannot. Metanoia, an urban ministry located a block from the school in St. Matthew's Baptist Church, provides a positive environment after school. The Rev. Bill Stanfield and the Rev. Evelyn Oliveira created The Young Leaders Program, a faith-based initiative that provides free after-school homework help and a daily meal to students chosen by Chicora for their leadership potential. At Metanoia, they also learn about career possibilities and are nurtured through song, prayer, and fellowship. Metanoia believes that "developing leaders in the community will heal the community for themselves."
Personal accountability and responsibility are expected from all students. Each child has their own Citizenship Folder, in which they set their own goals and regularly review their progress. This helps students connect their behavior to their academics.
Believing that "success breeds success," the school enthusiastically celebrates each and every achievement. The children are given attainable goals and the accent is always on the positive. There are several different weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly award ceremonies that recognize and celebrate every accomplishment, from good citizenship to academic improvement.
The revitalization of Chicora, the little elementary school that could, has everything to do with a community pulling together to improve their situation. Thanks to the administrators, teachers, parents, community members, and most importantly, the students, who united with a common goal, Chicora is finally earning its place on Success Street.