Despite Some Skepticism, Burke Administrator Optimistic About Turnaround

By Barney Blakeney

When students return to Burke High School August 17 they will begin a new year with a new administration at one of the district’s most challenged high schools. Burke is transitioning in the midst of a rapidly changing environment. Cheryl Swinton was named Burke’s executive principal last February. Swinton brings a wealth of experience to her position, but the school has floundered in recent attempts to enhance its curriculum. The most recent attempt was the development of five career academies. That abandoned initiative has become the foundation for the Burke Educational Center.

“We embrace the 2017-18 school year with great anticipation for an outstanding year,” said Swinton earlier this week. “Our goal is to continue the tradition of excellence by building upon and refining those principles that have led Burke to success in the past, while moving forward to a year of academic growth, and college and career readiness. We are setting the bar high in academics and all areas of student life.”

Administrators expect an increase in the enrollment from last year when about 323 students were enrolled in grades 9-12. Burke last was rated by the state education board in 2014 when it was received a below average rating. Two years earlier it was rated at-risk. Swinton is confident things will turn around  beginning this year.

“We expect an increase in student enrollment and are currently fully staffed with the exception of one program (Clean Energy/Building Construction), having hired 10 new faculty members. At Burke, students will receive a world-class education in an environment led by nurturing and caring adults,” she said.

That turnaround will come because of several new initiatives. “Most of our faculty have been trained in Capturing Kids’ Hearts (CKH’s) and the New Tech Network project-based instructional design model. Capturing Kids Hearts is a national program aimed at building and improving relationships. We believe building positive relationships among faculty, staff, and students will result in a learning environment that will promote academic excellence through high expectations and mutual respect.

“Additionally, New Tech Network (NTN) is a leading design partner for comprehensive school change and has been at work for over 20 years. It is a proven school model around Project-based learning and is structured around four pillars: Teaching that engages; Technology that enables; Culture that empowers; and, Outcomes that matter. New Tech Network is working in partnership with Burke and CCSD. This transformative model will subsequently include Simmons-Pinckney and Sanders-Clyde as we each become innovative learning environments.”

That’s a tall order and some, like Burke High advocates The Friends of Burke co-founder Arthur Lawrence, are not as optimistic. Lawrence sees an uncertain future stemming from Burke’s unsteady past. Several administrators since 2000, despite construction of a new facility completed in 2004, left the school floundering under inconsistent leadership, he says. While Burke’s enrollment continues to decline a new high school, Charleston Charter School for Math and science, has emerged to become the second on the Charleston peninsula. A third high school will open this fall at Trident Technical College’s Palmer Campus on the peninsula.

The Charleston County School Board Board of Trustees in 2016 authorized staff to develop a model for Early College High School (ECHS). In 2017 it approved the start of ECHS at the Trident Technical College Palmer campus for the 2017-2018 schoolyear. ECHS is intended to serve students who are traditionally underrepresented in post-secondary education and afford them the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree and/or technical degree by the end of 12th grade. ECHS makes higher education more accessible, affordable, and attractive by bridging the divide between high school and college. Students and families benefit by establishing a seamless pathway from high school through the first two years of college. ECHS students are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree when using this model of education.

Lawrence thinks the two new schools will continue to erode Burke’s base enrollment. Beyond that, the elephant in the room is the fact that white who now are predominant on the peninsula, still refuse to send their children to Burke.

“As long as the inconsistency continues, programs will be affected and enrollment will continue to drop. When it gets down to 200 students, they’ll close the school. Development on the peninsula tells us time isn’t on our side.” Lawrence said.

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