At 30, Buist Academy’s Success Also Is Its Failure

Newly-renovated Buist Academy at 103 Calhoun Street downtown Charleston

By Barney Blakeney

Charleston County School District officials last week celebrated the 30th anniversary of Buist Academy for Advanced Studies. One of the state’s most accomplished schools, Buist’s history is one of controversy, success and failure.

Buist Academy academic magnet elementary school in Constituent District 20 was created in 1985. As Charleston County School District’s first magnet school, Buist was developed to attract white students to then all Black District 20.

The school offered advanced courses in a challenging environment. It consistently ranks among the nation’s top performing primary schools.

When Buist was created, Charleston County School District was pressed to comply with federal court orders to desegregate. District 20 was one of three almost totally Black constituent districts in the county. Buist was to be the catalyst for desegregating District 20.

But 30 years later, racial diversity at Buist is almost non-existent. Less than five percent of Buist students are Black. Former CCSD administrator Dr. Barbara Dilligard whose husband, the late Rufus Dilligard was chairman of the Dist. 20 constituent board when Buist was created, said the school was a valiant effort to diversify Dist. 20. It’s proven a resource for some, but not others. Buist never became what was envisioned, she said.

From the beginning critics feared the unique magnet school would become an elite alternative for affluent whites on the peninsula. The school board responded by imposing racial quotas. Forty percent of Buist’s enrollment would be reserved for Black students in District 20. All students however would have to score high on standardized proficiency tests.

The controversial school repeatedly was challenged. While its academic standings were unquestioned, its admissions policies remained a point of contention. In 2002 former county school board member attorney Larry Kobrovsky filed a suit on behalf of several parents whose children were denied admission.

The lawsuit was filed to force the school district to eliminate racial quotas, Kobrovsky said. Buist had failed to accomplish its mission to achieve diversity. With about 30 percent Black student enrollment, the school was racially diverse, but had failed to achieve economic diversity. It had become a haven for the children of the affluent. And more importantly, Buist had failed to bring racial diversity to District 20, Kobrovsky contended.

Seventeen years after Buist’s creation District 20 schools remained about 98 percent Black. “Not a single Asian, Native American or Hispanic child in District 20 goes to any school other than Buist,” Kobrovsky emphasized. White students attending other District 20 schools can be counted on one hand, he said. That’s still true today, Kobrovsky said Monday.

Four years after Kobrovsky’s lawsuit a new Dist. 20 constituent board chairman, Marvin Stewart, continued the challenge to Buist. By then about 37 percent of Buist’s kindergarten through eighth grade students were minorities. The school always has had a goal of 40 percent minority students.

Under Buist’s 2006 admissions policy 25 percent of student slots each were allotted to District 20 residents, siblings of students already at the school and students living in school attendance zones where schools were low performing academically. That countywide allocation would serve to further reduce diversity, Stewart said.

The policy first was changed in 1998. Not much has changed at Buist where essentially a private school paid for with public money has been established, Stewart said Monday.

“What we have at Buist is a class system. You have to admire what has been accomplished academically, but when you allow a school to cherry pick students it can only result in what we see now – the selfish protection of a system that has increased the number of failing schools and standards many students, especially minority students, can’t reach without adequate early childhood resources,” he said.

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