Memminger School, tugged by its past, reaches toward a brighter future

by Tom Grubisich

So much of the history of public education in Charleston including some of the darkest times unfolded at 20 Beaufain St. on the edge of downtown. But it's hard to think about that history when you look at the sleek and airy new complex at No. 20  the home of Memminger Elementary School.

The walled garden is a gracious bow to Memminger's 19th-century past, but the grand, multi-winged building that extends along Beaufain speaks to the future of Memminger when it could become a school where students of all races learn and develop together in the same classrooms.

Twice in the past 53 years, the future looked as if it was within Memminger's grasp. But both times the past won out.

The first time was in 1963 when, as a segregated white school, Memminger was ordered to desegregate in compliance with the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The nine-year delay resulted from the Charleston County School Board's legal fight against implementation of the High Court's decision. On the first day of desegregation, angry white students shouted at the newly arriving black students that they would be poisoned when they went to the cafeteria for lunch. In subsequent years, in the face of continuing white flight from the county's newly desegregated schools, Memminger became a predominantly black institution with an enrollment so shrunken it faced closure.

Memminger's second encounter with its future in the mid-1970s occurred in circumstances that initially looked more hopeful. In a bold reach toward racial diversity, the school sought to recruit more students, especially whites, through an enriched curriculum, developed with the faculty of the College of Charleston, that was billed as a national model. Expectations were so high prior to the scheduled launch in the 1977-78 academic year that Memminger drew many additional student signups from both races. But when the school reached out to students from well beyond its attendance zone, the county school board resisted, saying all the transfers would result in administrative chaos. 

In the ensuing legal imbroglio that continued until 1994, the school board prevailed, although the ruling judge acknowledged that Memminger's aborted curriculum initiative was "ahead of its time." But by then the model school had been long abandoned and Memminger had reverted to being a mostly black school in the middle of a racially mixed neighborhood. Once again, the past prevailed over the future.

New and Favorable Circumstances

Now Memminger is reaching for the high bar a third time, and new and favorable circumstances indicate it has a better chance to succeed.

To achieve racial diversity and academic excellence, Memminger is offering a cluster of benefits to current and potential students and their parents:

  • The stunning, $22 million school plant that opened in 2013.
  • Early-education classes for 3- and 4-year-olds that could save parents $500 and more monthly for care they now pay at private facilities.
  • The prospect of International Baccalaureate certification that would create a rigorous, world-class curriculum geared to give elementary-age students, including minorities, what they need early on to prepare for college and career.

International Baccalaureate certification may be the biggest benefit of all. It has the potential of pulling Memminger out of its past and taking it into a future that might be even brighter than what slipped from the school's grasp in 1963 and the mid-1970s.

Memminger first sought to introduce an IB program in 2008, but the county school board didn't back the move because board members were split on whether the program would be too demanding for some students and create a new layer of inequality.

The upshot was that Memminger got a compromise "global studies" program that had some, mostly superficial elements of the more detailed IB Primary Years Program, and was not integrated into the curriculum as planned. Parental dissatisfaction with the result of the compromise revived consideration of IB. In 2013 the school board, with downtown member Todd Garret being a strong advocate, relented and gave Memminger authorization to introduce a full-scale IB Primary Years Program. Under the PYP, students get engaged with "big ideas" their own and other students' that leap among and beyond standard curriculum subjects. In a way, the classrooms  at Memminger can become microcosms of the global world where there are 3,700 IB schools in 145 countries with more than a million students.

Memminger Parent Advocate Darcell White and Student Support Specialist Raymond Nelson with third-grade students Thomas McWhite, Jaycee West and Tzion Camera.

Memminger Parent Advocate Darcell White and Student Support Specialist Raymond Nelson with third-grade students Thomas McWhite, Jaycee West and Tzion Camera.

Since the 2013-2014 school year, Memminger has been gradually integrating the IB way of teaching and learning throughout the 70,000 square feet of its school. "Yes, we have been implementing the IB framework schoolwide for all students within our school's 'Program of Inquiry,'" says Katherine Houser, who manages the program. "All teachers have been trained in the Primary Years Program."

IB seeking out low-income schools

The 48-year-old IB, which is governed and managed by a Swiss-based nonprofit foundation, used to have an elite image. But in recent years IB has actively pursued relationships with Title I (high-poverty) schools like Memminger. By the 2012-13 school year, 60% of all U.S. schools with IB programs were Title I.

IB cites numbers that it says shows how it can transform poorly performing low-income schools with predominantly minority enrollments. For example, IB says, 79% of graduates of its Diploma Program at U.S. high schools go on to college just a few percentage points below the 82% percent college enrollment among students at high schools in general.

IB seeks to create, especially in often-stigmatized low-income schools, a culture that permeates the lives of students "learners," as they're called. At Memminger, for example, IB learning begins with "inquiry, which IB defines this way: "We nurture our curiosity, developing skills for inquiry and research. We know how to learn independently and with others. We learn with enthusiasm and sustain our love of learning throughout life."

IB promotes a spirit of collaboration that shows up prominently in how teachers relate to each other as well as their students. Teachers plan lessons together and meet regularly to fine-tune lessons and share tips on how to help students who have hit a learning wall.

‘Teaching to the test’ does not appear to be part of IB’s modus operandi.

Collaboration helps motivate teachers to try new ideas, especially ones that might be challenged by a cautious administrative bureaucracy. "Teaching to the test" which U.S. teachers says has subverted meaningful learning does not appear to be part of the IB modus operandi.

In its quiet way, without any Michelle Rhee-like reformist rhetoric, IB is an agent of change in public education in America. How well IB initiatives at Memminger are received in the bureaucracy of the Charleston County School District and by the ruling and elected school board will depend to a large degree on how successful the school is academically.

Exactly what kind of impact IB will have at Memminger among its 324 students, most of whom are black and from low-income homes, will start showing up after the state administers its new SC Ready assessment tests this spring and then grades schools based on test scores.

Considering its current performance baseline, Memminger can go mostly in only one direction: up. In 2012 and 2013, it received an "At-Risk" report card from the state. It went up one notch to "Below Average" in 2014. The state didn't rate schools last year, when it used the tough ACT Aspire assessments for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, and then quickly dropped those tests and chose a new assessment system SC Ready.

‘The bar has to be set at a level to guarantee that students will graduate college- and career-ready.’

The state doesn't yet know how tough the SC Ready assessments will be compared to the one-year ACT Aspire tests. But Melanie Barton, Executive Director of the independent, nonpartisan state Education Oversight Committee, says: “The bar has to be set at a level to guarantee that students will graduate college -and career-ready.”

Memminger's 3rd-through-5th-grade ACT Aspire tests results were both good and bad news. The bad news was that English, Reading, Writing and Math scores for those grades were below those for other Charleston schools, statewide schools and "schools with students like ours." Memminger students' Reading scores were the lowest, with barely 8% of the test takers scoring "Ready."  The good news was that in English, Writing and Math, disproportionately large numbers of Memminger students scored in the "Close" category, which is between "Ready" and "In Need of Support."

The big questions are, 1) will the school's IB Primary Years Program help many students at the Close level in English, Writing and Math rise to Ready and 2) lift up the 74% who are "In Need of Support" in "Reading"? The staff at Memminger, beginning with Principal Abigail D. Woods, believes that PYP can and will. At county school district headquarters, Erica Taylor, Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, says improvements are a must. She told me: "Current scores on the ACT are a reflection of the change needed at Memminger from the "At-Risk" results [in 2012 and 2013]."


A counselor and students in the "Kaleidoscope" after-school program at Memminger. Kaleidoscope is a Charleston County School District initiative that serves 4,000 students in 45 elementary schools by offering the youngsters a meal, structured activities and a safe environment while their parents are at work.

A counselor and students in the "Kaleidoscope" after-school program at Memminger. Kaleidoscope is a Charleston County School District initiative that serves 4,000 students in 45 elementary schools by offering the youngsters a meal, structured activities and a safe environment while their parents are at work.

IB program manager Houser is confident that the Primary Years Program will transform student learning. She says it's already happening: “Our students are showing increases in academic performance in both Math and English Language Arts on the Measures of Academic Progress. They have also demonstrated social and emotional learning...In addition, Memminger students and faculty have demonstrated improvements in all areas of the Personalized Learning framework, which support the IB philosophy of student directed learning and innovation.”

The PYP has a number of teacher resources that are geared to reading instruction and intervention at the elementary school level.

Memminger is in its third test year with PYP. If it's certified  which could occur as early as September of this year – it will become an IB World School.

* * *

With most of its students from low-income homes, Memminger's support team is a critical component of the staff as the school moves toward IB certification. Meet team members Raymond Nelson and Darcell White:

Nelson has a double commitment to Memminger and its students, because he is a Student Support Specialist and also a graduate of the school. When students don't do their homework, Nelson will find out why. "In one case, the boy's mother couldn't pay the electric bill, so he didn't have a light to study," he says. He sees students who freeze up in preparation for standardized tests. "I see straight-A students who are so nervous they can't write a complete sentence." His job is to help calm them down. "I can make a difference," he says.

Parent Advocate White says many of Memminger's 324 children live at the Robert Mills Manor public housing project three blocks away. The head of many of the households at Robert Mills is a single mother. "Many of them work at two or three jobs," White says. "But they have to be careful. If they make too much money, they'll lose their [subsidized] apartment and Medicaid." She also offers one reason for the relative absence of men at the project: "There are fathers who are incarcerated." She is trying to organize a group of employers who will hire the men to do jobs with more opportunities when they're released. "Right now, if they've been out even five or six years, about the only job they can get is as a short-order cook."

White, a former Charleston police officer who grew up in a single-mother household in Pittsburgh, is optimistic about the parents of the children at Memminger. We have the resources here to help them. We just have to meet them at their level."