Memminger principal: 'When you have a kid's heart, you can grow a kid's mind'

Memminger Principal Dr. Abigal Woods and Kindergarten teacher Gloria Murray.

Memminger Principal Dr. Abigal Woods and Kindergarten teacher Gloria Murray.

by Tom Grubisich

The wall at Memminger Elementary School is ablaze with an array of bright hearts. Under the heading “Mariner Affirmations,” the hearts are inscribed with hand-written, silver-inked messages from students to teachers and support staff and vice versa:

“Food Service: Ms. Brown & Co - WE LOVE YOU!”

“Thank you Mr. Joyner for inspiring me to do what's right. Ta'Shaun"

“Dream is a focused student. She makes great eye contact. Mr. Liston”

The messages – there are more than 50 - are part of "relationship building" at Memminger. “Relationships matter a lot,” says Principal Dr. Abigal Woods. “We want to capture hearts – our children’s, the staff’s, our families’. Building relationships fosters accountability and team building in the learning process.”

Memminger is on a mission – to rise beyond its recent history as an “at-risk” school (how it was ranked by the state in 2012 and 2013) and achieve authorization as an International Baccalaureate institution.

Memminger is getting a special focus from the Charleston County school board, which wants to make the school an academic model among the system's high-poverty, predominantly black schools, most of which are performing below average in state-issued report cards and annual assessment tests.. Toward that end, the board gave Memminger the green light to go for IB certification and earlier made the school a partial magnet for its less-encompassing Global Studies Program.

A secondary, but not absolute, goal of both the school board and the Memminger community is to make the school more diverse. More than 90% of Memminger's enrollment is black, and most of those students are in high-poverty families.

While it draws many of its students from the nearby and overwhelmingly black Robert Mills Manor public housing cluster, Memminger is surrounded by upper-end white Charleston. More than 15% of households in the school's 29401 ZIP Code earn more than $200,000 yearly and more than 12% earn between $100,000 and $200,000. These numbers make 29401 one of the most affluent ZIPs in the Tri-County region.

Most of 29401's white families send their children to private schools. The result is reverse, de-facto segregation that makes Memminger mostly black in enrollment. Before it was desegregated, in 1963 - nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racially separate schools - Memminger was an all-white school.

In its most recent state report card - 2014 - Memminger went up one notch to “below average.”  But from its pre-kindergarten program through grade 5, Memminger must continue to raise its levels of achievement in the basics of English, Reading, Writing and Math to meet the expectations of the county school board and achieve IB authorization.

IB authorization could come as early as 2017.  Says Woods about the crucial time between now and 2017: “Our teachers have had numerous professional development days to support the IB process, as well as support from the coordinator, coaches and administration. The students' learning and curriculum are reflective of IB practices that will support authorization.

For Woods, success in achieving authorization and what that means for each of Memminger's 340 students begins with relationship building typified by the display of "Mariner Affirmations." She says: "Relationships are an investment of the heart. When you have a kid's heart, you can grow a kid's mind."