A 'white supremacy' prevails in Charleston County school system

by Tom Grubisich

There are 16 elementary schools in the Charleston County School District that are rated "excellent," and all of them have a solid white majority.

These are the schools (yellow-highlighted with the "E" in the last column for "excellent"):

Click on this table of all 50 elementary schools in the Charleston district, and you'll notice that almost all the lower-rated ones "good," "average," "below average" and "at risk" – have solid black majorities. 

In a sense, Charleston has turned the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education decision on its head. It has produced schools that are mostly racially separate and where whites get to keep what they had in superior educational quality. The main difference is one of purity. The segregated schools outlawed by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 were 100% white or black; Charleston's "white" schools have generally small minorities of blacks, while its "black" schools have even smaller numbers of whites.

It's an outcome that patriarchal segregationists in the 1950s, the ones who didn't dress up in hooded white sheets, like the older and racially embittered Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's second novel, "Go Set a Watchman," might have been happy to accept if they could have foreseen what would happen in the years after schools were, theoretically, desegregated. 

It is not the intention of the Charleston school system, including its nine elected trustees, to foster white supremacy. But that's what has happened, willy-nilly, over decades of consistent failure by the system, from the top district leadership on down to neighborhood school staff, to meet the needs of its black students, many of whom are poor and live in segregated, often isolated neighborhoods. This educational constituency is a world apart from middle-class Charleston, whose white families earned about $64,600 annually compared to $29,800 for black families in 2015. The wide racial division in income has Charleston ranked as 62nd worst among 70 metro areas in the National Urban League's report "Save Our Cities: 2015 State of Black America."

The "average" rating for most Charleston black-majority schools is not much of a consolation prize for their students and parents. It is highly misleading because between 2009 and 2014 it was primarily based on student performance on the South Carolina Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) tests, which set a very low standard compared to other states in the U.S. According to analyses done by Education Next, the South Carolina standards were the 43rd weakest in the nation.

The misleading nature of the South Carolina ratings became crystal clear in 2015 when Charleston students took the ACT Aspire tests instead of the PASS tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. The ACT Aspire tests are nationally normed since they are taken by students across the nation. They show that, overall, the percentages of third- and eight-grade Charleston students who did not meet standards ranged from 30% to more than 100% higher when compared to prior-year PASS tests results.

In other words, many of Charleston's "average" elementary schools, almost of which have black-majority enrollments, no longer earn that rating. They would fall into "below average" or, in some cases, get lower ratings.

The table of all 50 Charleston elementary schools shows that school ratings generally correlate with the Poverty Index in the first column. High-poverty schools in the Charleston district almost always have low ratings. But 40 years of school reform around the country are showing that high-poverty students can be high achievers. This positive trend is being tracked in, among other places, Denver, Memphis and even in New Orleans, whose old and poorly performing public schools were replaced by charter schools as part of the city's post-Katrina revamping.

Even in Charleston County, there is some evidence that high-poverty students can be top performers academically. At the new Meeting Street Elementary@Brentwood in North Charleston, which opened as a neighborhood public school in 2014, 80% of the mostly high-poverty students in the first grade did better in end-of-year testing than the national average for first graders. The @Brentwood students also significantly outperformed students at other high-poverty schools in North Charleston. 

The @Brentwood school was created through a partnership between Meeting Street Schools and the Charleston County School District. Like other Meeting Street Schools operations that are private schools two in Charleston and one in Spartanburg @Brentwood has a high degree of autonomy, which frees it to be innovative in how it is set up and operated as a "learning center" and how it seeks to enhance learning, especially among minority students who come from high-poverty backgrounds. Every teacher has a classroom assistant, which promotes individualized learning.

"A Meeting Street child is empowered, included, unique and supported," the nonprofit company says on its website. Its first school was founded in 1946 in Providence, R.I., on that city's Meeting Street.

The Charleston district's new superintendent, Dr. Gerrita Postlewait, has candidly acknowledged that the learning culture in the public system she manages doesn't work for the emerging majority of its students, who are black and growing up in mostly low-income and high-poverty families. 

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait

"The system we inherited was never designed to bring all children to high levels of learning," she told the district's administrative leadership last August. "It wasn't....The system has to be changed. We have to commit to making the system work for kids."

How quickly change will come is a big, open question. The Charleston district's partnership with Meeting Street Schools covers just one school. There are 86 other schools in the Charleston system, and Postlewait has nine bosses on the school board, at least some of whom may not want to oversee a system that includes too many autonomous schools.