Last month Charleston County School District Superintendent Dr. Gerrita Postlewait during a committee meeting referred to disparities in academic achievement between students of different ethnic backgrounds as the result of “soft bigotry” that has been perpetuated. Members of Charleston County School Board were asked what they are doing to address that “soft bigotry”. Recurring among their responses was the need to hire good principals and teachers.
Peninsula Charleston representative to Todd Garrett said, “What motivates me the most is that in April teacher/principal contracts go out. If we hire back a bunch of teachers that we know are failing kids or principals who won’t hold their teacher buddies accountable, then we’ve just lost another year and a half, and if that happened, it would be two years before anything changes.
“We cannot let bad teachers get in front of our kids for another year. We tiptoe around it and treat teachers like the priesthood. When a teacher fails, then those kids are never going to get that year back. Most of our low performing teachers are in our low performing schools where kids are already behind. If we don’t clean house and ensure that we have a quality teacher in front of every student, and (have) some of our highest performing teachers located in our lowest performing schools, then there’s no hope of ever changing anything for poor kids, in particular.” He outlined several steps that should be taken:
1. In the next month, we need to know that every principal in every school is committed to ensuring that we have a highly effective teacher in every classroom. If they won’t keep that standard, then they need to go.
2. We need to know that no level 1 teacher is rehired as a teacher. Level 2 teachers need intensive professional development and mentoring, and level 4 level 5 teachers need incentives (with additional funds) to ensure that they are spread throughout our schools for mentoring.
3. After we’ve identified the empty seats that we need to fill, then we need an all out blitz to ensure that we hire highly qualified replacements by fall, including alternative teacher accreditation to get engineers, math majors, or other non-educators into the classroom to teach in their area. By April, we need to ID how many schools we can realistically expect to operate with 100 percent highly effective teachers.
4. For the ones that we can’t promise that, then we need to bring in third party operators like KIPP, Meeting Street Academy, etc to fill the gap (with the provision that they can’t steal our teachers).
“I’m concerned that the size of the task and the power of the status quo will keep us from doing anything, unless the public knows how bad the situation is. I was told this week that if we fired all of our low performing teachers that we wouldn’t be able to open all schools next year. Not good, and it begs the question, then why did we allow them in front of children this year,” Garrett said.
West Ashley representative Michael Miller said he wants to discuss the comment with Postlewait and ask what specifically she is doing to address soft bigotry. Miller said Postlewait has stated the obvious with her comment. Charleston County School District has perpetuated the bigotry Postlewait spoke of since its inception in 1967. The individual school districts that came together under the Act of Consolidation in 1967 historically perpetuated that bigotry, he said.
It’s a history previous school superintendents also must have realized, Miller said. Ending that bigotry rests with elected school board members who set district policies and the superintendents they hire to run the district, he said. Also responsible for addressing the bigotry so obvious in the district are senior level administrators and school principals. They set in motion procedures that either end or perpetuate bigotry, he said.
Miller said since his election to the board in 2012, he has remained an advocate for the victims of bigotry, but he added, “I sometimes almost feel like my hands are tied because there’s not enough support from the board to make the changes that are needed.”
Priscilla Jeffery who in November was elected to the board for a first term said as a Vermont native who moved here two years ago after teaching and serving as a school board member in Vermont and later in Denver, Colo., she’s unfamiliar with the racial segregation that continues to exist here. She’s both understanding and saddened by that history, she said.
Fixing that broken culture requires a multilayered approach, she believes. Some of the tools necessary should include paying the best principals to work at challenged schools that will support and keep the best teachers at those schools. A lot of new teachers come into the system not knowing who their students are culturally, she said. They need sensitivity training. And definitely there needs to be more teachers of color in a district where about half its students are children of color, but fewer than 20 percent of teachers are people of color.
North Charleston representative Cindy Bohn Coats said, “Recruiting the best teachers and paying them a desirable salary as well as having an excellent principal in every building are a key step to ending disparate expectations and opportunities. Continuous revamping and expansion of alternative programs to keep all kids engaged and in classrooms instead of out of school is another way this board and Dr. Postlewait are changing the history of the soft bigotry.”