Diversity lacking at more than one fourth of S.C. schools
By Andy Brack
Statehouse Report
Part 1 of 4

JUNE 15, 2012 -- Integration may not be working in South Carolina for at least a quarter of the state's public schools.

The reasons are varied. There's more of a focus on neighborhood schools. An increase in alternative public schools, such as charter and magnet schools, takes bright, often white kids out of mainstream schools, which, in turn, lowers general school diversity. Finally, families with economic means in rural and urban areas often abandon public schools for private alternatives, either because they don't want their kids to mix with less fortunate kids or they don't think public schools are performing.

During the next four weeks, we'll offer an editorial series that looks into what's happened to integration over the last 40 years in South Carolina. We'll look at whether we're failing our children or adapting to more modern times. In the end, we'll look at some strategies to strengthen public schools and make them better.

First, a little history.

The state's 1895 Constitution called for a "liberal system of free public schools for all children between the ages of six and twenty-one years" (Article XI, Section 5). The next section included a provision for a $1 poll tax to be used for education. Section 7 said, "separate schools shall be provided for children of the white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race."

Fast forward to Clarendon County in 1947 when 22 black families filed a case against the local school district to get some gas money for a bus so children didn't have to walk to their "separate but equal" schools. By 1949, the Briggs v. Elliott case blossomed in scope to seek equal educational opportunities. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court combined five school equality cases, including Briggs, and heard oral arguments. In 1954, the court ruled unanimously that separate schools were not equal and that segregation was harmful. In a subsequent decision a year later, the court ruled that federal district courts would oversee desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

It took, however, several years and a lot of turmoil for schools in South Carolina to be desegregated. Around 1970, with the threat of federal money being withheld, any remaining school districts acquiesced and put black and white kids in the same classes.

As desegregation moved forward, scores of private schools -- often known as white "seg" schools -- cropped up across the state. Today, about 39,000 students in South Carolina attend an estimated 262 private schools, many of which are predominantly white. Additionally, the state Department of Education estimates about 20,000 students are "home-schooled," or educated in their homes.

The current state Constitution calls for the state to "provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free public schools open to all children in the state." More than 700,000 of South Carolina's children attend 1,150 public schools across the state.

According to data from the State Department of Education, South Carolina has 109 public schools in which 90 percent or more of the student body is black. When the threshold of black students in schools is dropped to 80 percent, the number of predominantly black grows to 164. Only two of these schools are outside of the Pee Dee, Midlands or Lowcountry.

Remarkably, the state has almost exactly the same number of schools with 80 percent or more white students -- 161 schools -- as it does predominantly black schools. But when the threshold is increased to 90 percent or more white, there are only 37 schools that are overwhelmingly white. Only four of the 37 are outside of the Upstate.

Just looking at the numbers, it's pretty clear 325 out of the state's 1,150 public schools -- 28 percent -- are predominantly black or white. In the Upstate, a high number of whiter schools makes some sense because the black population in the region is far less than it is in the lower part of the state. Only 16 percent of Anderson County's population is black. In neighboring Pickens County, blacks comprise just 6.6 percent of the population.

But whatever is happening outside of the Upstate makes one wonder: Are we failing some of our children, particularly those in predominantly black schools because of a lack of diversity?

NEXT WEEK: Are we failing some of our children?

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

Low expectations fuel "dis-integration"
By Andy Brack
Statehouse Report
Part 2 of 4

JUNE 22, 2012 -- The 164 predominantly black public schools in South Carolina seem to have one thing in common -- low expectations by their communities.

On paper, the schools' challenges appear almost insurmountable. There's little diversity, a lot of poverty and a relatively low on-time graduation rate.

But visit the schools and prepare to be surprised.

For example, take Burke High School in Charleston, a facility built for 1,200 students but home to half that many from grades seven to 12. Out of 596 students in 2010-11, only four were white. The rest were black, except for two.

On paper, Burke is failing. Considered an "at-risk" school being looked at for possible takeover by the state, Burke has a 55.6 percent graduation rate and just over half of students passing two standardized subtests of the high school exit exam.

But Burke also offers an outstanding ROTC program. It's got a cool literary magazine. It has a 90.3 percent attendance rate, a third of students enrolled in advanced programs and a very high percentage of parents attending conferences. More than half of teachers have advanced degrees. The average teacher salary in 2011 was $42,609. There's an energy at the school where visitors are welcomed with a big banner that says "Burke High School Is Always Striving to Be the Best."

The story is similar at Scott's Branch High School outside Summerton in rural Clarendon County. On paper, the rural school looks like it might have problems. More than 94 percent of the school is black. Only 62 percent of students passed two standardized tests in 2011.

But this school, which in 1947 gave birth to South Carolina's battle to end segregation, is a comfortable, friendly, modern place to visit. Students in ninth grade get laptops to use for free for a year. The Internet allows students to take advanced courses in virtual classrooms.

"One thing I've never accepted is that the quality of education depends on the color of skin," said Clarendon One Superintendent Rose Wilder, who seems to know every student by name when walking through school hallways.

What's missing is cultural diversity. Predominantly black schools like Burke and Scott's Branch in urban and rural settings across the lower half of the state don't have what most kids take for granted in many suburban schools -- kids with various skin colors and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Just look at West Ashley High School in Charleston, where about half of the students are black and most of the rest are white. Not only are they exposed to different cultures, but the size of the school -- 1,871 students in 2011 -- offers students a lot of educational options.

"Very often, the societal expectations that kids bring to the school are emulated by other students," observed West Ashley Principal Mary Runyon. "If you don't have these peer models, it's very difficult to break out of those neighborhood expectations" in schools with little diversity.

Maurice Cannon, principal at Burke, said he wished his students had more cultural diversity because they would be able to learn about different experiences that just the so-called black experience. They'd be able to debate and discuss different ways of doing things and, in turn, grow.

But at schools like Burke and Scott's Branch, the schools don't appear to be failing the students. Instead, communities seem to be failing students because they don't embrace their schools as hubs of the community. Imagine, for example, what Burke would be like if white parents who send their kids to tony private schools were to support Burke fully. Instead of being half empty, it would be full -- of students, of curiosity and of different experiences.

Yes, public schools in South Carolina desegregated. We don't have separate but equal school systems, one each for blacks and whites. But 40 years after desegregation, we now have a lot of schools like Scott's Branch and Burke that are functionally segregated or suffering "dis-integration." Why? Because, in large part, people with economic means, most of whom are white, send their kids to private schools or teach them at home.

Unfortunately, that's the way it is. But we shouldn't accept it. Why? Because it's continuing to foster a patrician culture for the next generation. And until we get around that, we really are failing a lot of South Carolina's children.

NEXT WEEK: The advantages of more diversity

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

Piecemeal solutions not the answer to better schools
By Andy Brack
Statehouse Report
Part 3 of 4

JUNE 29, 2012 -- With more than a fourth of South Carolina's public schools being functionally segregated today, it's legitimate to question whether policymakers ought to look for ways to reduce racial disparities in South Carolina classrooms.

Earlier in this series, we outlined how 28.2 percent of the state's public schools are predominantly black or white. Some 160 schools, generally from the Midlands to the coast, have 80 percent or more black students while a similar number, many of which are in the Upstate are 80 percent or more white. We also discussed how it kind of made sense for the mostly white schools to be in the Upstate, because that's where fewer blacks live -- but the high number of mostly black schools in the rest of the state pointed to their problem with having enough cultural diversity for students.

In other words, from the Midlands through the Pee Dee to the Lowcountry, scores of predominantly black schools have disadvantaged populations that continue to get a different school experience than students in more integrated, generally suburban schools.

Research shows that all students who attend racially integrated schools have better critical thinking skills, according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. And because of diverse learning opportunities in integrated schools, all students become better communicators and problem-solvers.

"Integrated school environments do not harm the test scores of white students," according to a 2008 CRP report on voluntary school integration. "In fact, white students who grow up in racially segregated neighborhoods are likely to benefit from integrated school environments as they gain the opportunity to understand and value multiple perspectives and emerge from school better prepared for living and working in our increasingly diverse American society.

Furthermore, integration really makes an impact on the lives of black children, most of whom start up a rung on the ladder below white children.

"The experience of an integrated education made all of the difference in the lives of black children -- and in the lives of their children as well," education policy guru David L. Kirp wrote in a May 20 opinion column in The New York Times. Interestingly, the longer that black students were in integrated settings, the better they did, he said. He noted a 2011 study that showed black students in desegregated schools earned 25 percent more than those who didn't attend them and they're a lot healthier too.

For Kirp, the lesson is as plain as the nose on your face: integration works. "If we're serious about improving educational opportunities, we need to revisit the abandoned policy of school integration."

Unfortunately, that's not the trend. Today in education, there's a wave of new charter schools and other public choices in South Carolina that tend to clump similar people together. Of the 44 charter schools in the state in the 2010 school year, 10 were predominantly black and six were predominately white. Almost two in five, compared to one in four of all public schools, are predominantly one race of another.

Jon Butzon, president of the Charleston Education Network, laments how regular public schools, already drained of a lot of talent because of the 39,000 mostly white students in 262 private schools, are losing with the growth of more choices in public education. [As an aside, the zeal for more choices makes perfect sense because parents, tired of ill-performing public schools, are setting up charter schools to try to offer more to their kids.]

Charter schools are particularly tough on disadvantaged students when they're based on merit because poor children tend to be less ready when they get to school in the first place.

"Anytime you set up a system of education that is based on merit, you will exclude the vast majority of minority students because it is those students we have historically and repeatedly under-educated and continue to under-educate," Butzon said. "It's harder for charter schools to do that -- harder, but not impossible. Don't you have to be 'gifted' to get into a gifted charter school?"

Bottom line: Encouraging strategies that continue to siphon off money and talent from regular public schools is just going to make them worse. How about looking for ways to improve all schools so we don't have to come up with piecemeal solutions that may fail our children?

NEXT WEEK: Big ideas for better schools

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

Big ideas to create better public schools
By Andy Brack
Statehouse Report
Part 4 of 4

JULY 6, 2012 -- There is no magic silver bullet to improve South Carolina's public schools. If there were one, it would have been fired from the policy gun years ago for a system that has struggled for generations.

So that's left people to try lots of different approaches from magnet schools to publicly-funded charter schools that are run outside of the traditional power structure with a lot of parental input. There are continuing attempts to hijack public funds via vouchers to pay for private school education. And school leaders are trying Montessori-style schools, gifted programs, early childhood intervention programs, paying more to teachers; teacher accountability; tough standards; and on and on and on.

In South Carolina, it's not clear anything is really working to make all schools better. As a result, we've got a state where 28 percent of kids attend culturally homogeneous schools in which 80 percent of students or more are of one race. In the Upstate, the schools are mostly white. In the Lowcountry, Pee Dee and Midlands, those schools tend to be mostly black. The schools in middle? They're all over the map from Academic Magnet High School in Charleston County, one of the top schools in the country, to rural schools with big achievement gaps that struggle for good teachers.

As a result, almost 60,000 students -- about a tenth of South Carolina's students -- attend private schools or are home-schooled. Just about everyone else is losing patience, but is caught because they can't afford private schools, many of which, in truth, may not provide that much better education than the public schools by which people are frustrated.

Particularly for the 28 percent of schools where diversity is low, attempts by policymakers to increase diversity will pay off in creating better school experiences for kids, says David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Despite its flaws, integration is as successful an educational strategy as we've hit on," he wrote in May in The New York Times.

But simply adding diversity back into the mix to fix our schools isn't enough. More has to be done, as Kirp outlined in a recent book, "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives." The big ideas:

  • Have parents be better first teachers. A child's first teachers are his parents, but Kirp observes many come to the table ill-prepared to help developing young minds. How can you fix that? Through programs that provide parents with skills to be better parents and teachers. An example he cites is Triple P, a program with stunning results in South Carolina where "among whites and blacks, rich and poor alike, parents are doing a better job of raising their children."

  • Earlier childhood education. South Carolina doesn't have voluntary universal 4-year-old public education. Many children receive help through Head Start, private kindergarten or a court-imposed 4K program in some poor counties, but lots of children still don't have access to earlier education -- which has been proven to pay off. According to a five-state study, 31 percent of kids in pre-K programs did better on vocabulary and 41 percent on math than peers not in the programs.

  • Make schools the center of communities. Kirp suggests schools should be used for more than daytime learning. They also should be places with vibrant after-school programs as well as offerings for adults (health clinics, classes, clubs and more).

  • Embrace mentoring from the community. Schools should partner more with businesses to expand learning opportunities. Individual mentors also should be linked to at-risk youths who can benefit from having a caring adult in their lives.

  • Nest egg. Perhaps the book's most controversial idea, Kirp suggests each child at birth should get a small trust fund for higher education. Such a fund is in place in Maine where a rich guy endowed a $500 fund for every newborn in the state. In 20 years, the fund will grow to about $2,000, but if parents add just $50 a month to it during that span -- a strategy to get them to think more long-term about their child's future -- the fund will grow to $25,000 in 20 years and become a big help in allowing all children to have the financial wherewithal to attend college.

What these big ideas have in common is they're trying to boost education for every child, not just disadvantaged ones. If we can do that, then there might be more buy-in for better educational programs everywhere. Send along your big idea.

Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.


PART 1: Diversity lacking at more than 1/4th of South Carolina schools

PART 2: Low expectations fuel "dis-integration"

PART 3: Piecemeal solutions not the answer to better schools

PART 4: Big ideas to create better schools

DATA: Click for diversity data for all SC public schools (XLS)



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