By Alex Saitta
May 29, 2017
More than 70 charter schools are in South Carolina now. This number is growing at a high rate as parents given a choice, are leaving the traditional school system.
In Pickens County, the Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) opened a few years ago, quickly maxed out at 144 students and has a long waiting list today. Lakes and Bridges charter school, will focus on reading and seeks an enrollment of up to 500 students.
The issues driving parents away is the culture/ lack of discipline in traditional schools, too many students performing below grade level, class sizes rising and the administration/ board isn't responsive to the public. In my opinion, the district administration/ school board is not effectively addressing these things, actually made some worse, and will lose even more students over time. For instance, the main driver for parents leaving Pickens Middle School (PMS) for YLA was the culture/ lack of discipline at PMS. The district administration at the time was urged by the board to change the leadership there. It didn't. YLA opened and took 144 students in no time. The leadership at PMS was then changed. The administration put in a principal who was turning PMS around, but he was then moved after a year or two.
The district administration still doesn't understand why its own teachers started YLA, many of them sending their own children there, and why loyal PTA moms and dads took their kids out of PMS too. I remember when YLA started, I said to the district administration, talk with the teachers that started the school and parents who left and ask them why? They never bothered to. Like I wrote in my in a recent letter to the editor: the district office never recognizes failures and generally just sweeps them under the rug.
The way this new administration and board have ramped up spending, the school district cannot afford to lose more students.
Then the district administration/ school board leadership made it clear (again) they don't listen to the public when they closed Holly Springs and AR Lewis. The next year more than 65 students left. That is, the enrollment of the 3 elementary schools in Pickens this year is more than 65 students less than the 5 elementary schools last year. And those students didnít go to Six Mile or Dacusville elementary schools. Those schoolsí enrollment didnít change. Evidently, parents just took their kids and left.
To add insult to injury, after saying the schools had to be closed because the district lacked funds for needed upgrades and running them, they are reopening AR Lewis for another purpose, having the $879,000 for the upgrades and Holly Springs is going to be used as a community center and the school district is paying the cost to run the building. The public knows they were misled, if not lied to by the leadership.
Declining Public Support:
Traditional public schools are seeing falling public support in other ways as well. The state legislature is under pressure to contain education costs, because budget constraints and other priorities.
In 2006 school boards around the state were put on an allowance and most of their fiscal autonomy was taken away. Act 388 took away one-third of their tax base and replaced it with a revenue stream that only grows by the CPI and population rates. The other two-thirds of the tax base the legislature put a millage cap on it.
The legislature went about creating an alternative and less expensive education system, which it aims to grow. Virtual schools were created. Charter schools have been added and are multiplying. School choice has passed in a limited form. If Trump can get a national school choice plan implemented, it will be interesting to see if the SC legislature expands its school choice tax credits.
State House Representative Gary Clary spoke at Lakes and Bridgesí hearing on behalf of giving the school a charter to open up in 2018. None of this was going on ten-to-fifteen years ago.
Public education is losing federal support too, with Title I money in decline and a federal education secretary who wants to pass a federal tax credit program for private schools.
As the baby boomers are nearing retirement, they are now more concerned with their health care needs than education. Evidence the passage of ObamaCare. You notice education is no longer the top priority in Columbia. Instead it is now roads and things like fixing the pension system.
Current school board trustees advocating for independent charter schools, teachers leaving and starting their own charter schools, and the President wanting to expand school choice. This was not happening 15 years ago.
And the administration/ board compounds the problem when they close the highest performing school in the county (Holly Springs elementary) against the wishes of parents and PTA moms and dads from that school and AR Lewis which was also closed.
The administration/ board must change their approach. They are no longer a monopoly and have to stop acting like one.
First, instead of always asking for more money, school leaders should propose ways to bring down their costs. If it cost only $9,500 a year to educate a child in traditional public schools, and not $12,000, the legislature wouldnít be pushing for these cheaper alternatives.
Second, districts and school boards should work with charter schools. Blocking sales of abandoned school buildings or bad mouthing charter schools and their employees will do nothing but anger legislators and theyíll be more apt push for expanding alternatives.
For example, Clearview Collegiate Academy applied for a local charter with our school board in September of 2016. Unfortunately, the administration and board leadership was not supportive of having any more charter schools in the county for fear of losing more students.
Instead of giving Clearview a fair evaluation, the board and district leadership stonewalled the application. As a trustee, who would be asked to approve or deny the application, the board leadership didn't even give me an application to review. I had to press the administration just to get a copy. The hearing was put off to very end and a majority of the board members voiced beforehand they would not approve the application. Clearview got the message and withdrew their application.
In 2014 Legacy Charter School bid on the old Gettys Middle School. Their plan was to buy the school from the district which we put up for sale months before. Legacy pledged to invest $10 million of their own money into the building and open a second middle/ high school in Easley. The district and school board leadership refused to sell the building to Legacy (even though Legacy was the only bid for about six months).
Thatís not the solution when you are losing your monopoly. The best approach when facing new competition is to find out where you need improvement and improve.
Save The System:
Iím not against the traditional public school system. Scarlett is a rising sophomore at Pickens High and Amber a rising freshman. What I oppose is the attempt to maintain the status quo while the environment is changing. That will do nothing but continue to weaken the school districtís market position and their standing in the eyes of the state legislature, parents and taxpayers. And this public support (or lack of) ultimately determines the fate of public education.
The district has vulnerabilities to competition that have been lingering for years. Mainly, parents are not happy with the culture/ lack of discipline in many of our middle and high schools. The district/ school board has spent tens of millions on school security, but has done little to nothing to deal with bullying, for instance, or improving the culture in our schools.
About 20% of our students donít graduate on time, and 20% are below are grade level overall, including reading.
Lakes and Bridges Charter will focus on an area where the school district is very weak ó reading. About 3,000 students read below grade level in the SDPC. If Lakes and Bridges is well managed, they wonít have any problem filling up 500 slots over time.
Must Learn From Them:
Our school district must also learn from the new approaches being employed by charter schools. Like I said, Legacy was interested in buying the old Gettys Middle and was going to focus on at-risk students.
At Legacy in Greenville, 93% of the students are on free/ reduced lunches, so it is much lower income area than anywhere in Pickens County. The students in that area only have a 55% graduation rate in the traditional public school system. Legacyís graduation rate is 89%. How did Legacy boost the graduation rate? By changing the culture at school and having a different approach to education. Students are grouped into teams and compete for rewards based on grades, behavior, habits. The student-teacher ratio is 17 to 1 ó no class has more than 22 students. Legacy pushes college and college themes throughout the school with banners of universities all over the place and the school pushing college credit courses via Greenville Tech. Character/ social skills education courses are mandatory, like teaching kids to think before they act, shake hands and look the person in the eye, and donít speak out of turn. The students wear uniforms. Their day is longer and if a student is scoring below 80% in any class, he must stay after school 2 hours a day where the teachers work with the students to catch up. I visited the school about 2 or 3 years ago. I said to the Legacy director, gosh, you must have so many behavioral issues with your school dominated by underperforming students. How did you deal with that? He said, ďWe changed the cultureĒ. He didnít say we gave them better technology. He didnít say we gave them a better trained teacher in math. He didnít say we gave them a more rigorous curriculum. The positive/ re-enforcing culture we witnessed slapped me right across the face when I walked into the school. Thatís the root of the success of Legacy.
Our district can, and must learn from what Legacy, YLA and others are doing.
There isnít anything Legacy or YLA is doing that is complicated nor canít easily be replicated in our lowest performing schools. The obstacle is our district leadership believes the best way to improve academic performance is with an academic solution (beit a better trained teacher in the subject, better technology or a more rigorous curriculum). The problem is beyond academic. Unless the leaders of traditional public schools change their approach, they will be will be vulnerable to new charter schools or school choice coming into the area and being successful.
The wild card will be the Trump education plan and what gets passed. There is a focus on expanding charter schools and private school choice.