And The Brother Tells Me “Times Have Changed”

By Barney Blakeney

It’s old news now. Too many public school students in Charleston County don’t perform well academically.

The past few weeks I’ve been receiving reports about student performance. The information mostly has been depressing. Among some of the comments and statistics were: Tri-county region sees declines in key reading, math test results; 50,681 students took the WorkKeys assessment statewide 63 students scored at the Platinum level; “South Carolina has done a tremendous job in raising the level of rigor and expectations for all of our students through our homegrown college and career-ready standards and assessments, ” said State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.”The results of these assessments show that while we have set the bar high for all students, we are not doing enough to support them and provide them with the resources and knowledge to attain their full potential.”

I guess it was maybe 20 year ago, I won a National Newspaper Publishers Association first place award for journalism in education. I don’t know what ever happened to that award. It sat on The Chronicle’s front counter for years. I haven’t seen it lately. I put in a lot of hard work to win that award. Each week I wrote something about public education in Charleston County. I got help from former school board members like Jackie Ketchens, Carolyn Polite-Chisolm, Rev. Ted Lewis, Robert New, Larry Kobrovsky, Hillery Douglas, Gregg Myers and Brian Moody.

Last week I spoke with a current school board member about the decline in academic achievement among students. In response to my comment that I went to school at a time when teachers and administrators insisted on academic achievement among students, the board member said times have changed. That upset me.

Years ago when I wrote for the local daily newspaper, I ran into one of my old high school English teachers, Miss Naomi C. Williams, who was leaving the building. I had written a few op-ed pieces, my first front page news story and eventually would win a S.C. Press Association award. None of that made a whole lot of difference however, because unless I got Miss Williams’ affirmation, I felt I probably hadn’t accomplished much.

I asked Miss Williams what she thought of my work. This beautiful dedicated woman, in her usual “I’m not impressed because I have other things to do” fashion continued to walk away only glancing momentarily at me to say, “Barney, I don’t read your articles, but I know you’re doing well because we taught you all how to think” and continued on her way. That was as much confirmation as I needed.

I was disappointed that the brother with whom I spoke flipped me off saying ‘times change!” One of the reports I received was from Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative. According to the report, only 48 percent of tri-county third graders met or exceeded grade-level reading standards on the SC READY test at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. On the math assessment, 57 percent of third graders met or exceeded standards. Third grade results can predict a child’s likelihood to graduate high school, the report explained. While eighth grade results are directly tied to college and career readiness, at the eighth-grade level, 55 percent of tri-county students did not meet or exceed reading standards. Math results in eighth grade showed a significant percentage of students, 60 percent, scored as “not proficient.”

When broken down by race and poverty levels, the SC READY test results show substantial disparity gaps continue to exist among tri-county students. For instance, in third-grade math, 72 percent of White students met or exceeded expectations while only 43 percent of Hispanic students and 37 percent of Black students did the same. Similarly, in eighth-grade reading, 60 percent of White students met or exceeded expectations while just 36 percent of Hispanic students and 24 percent of Black students did the same.

“While these test results are but one indicator of student progress, they are very consistent with all of the other data we see at the regional and district level,” TCCC CEO John C. Read said. “It is apparent that the public education system our community provides and to which our kids are entitled is not getting the job done, especially for our most vulnerable children.”

I came out of Charleston County schools some 46 years ago. I attended school during Jim Crow segregation, during a time when disparities in public education was blatant and legal. And despite having attended three fine colleges and universities, I credit my public school education in Charleston County among my most valuable possessions. Miss Williams and all those others who nurtured me those 12 years regularly told me their goal was to enable me with the academic skills I needed to compete in a world that would challenge me.  I didn’t always do my part, but they did theirs. I put my public school education up against any in the world.

Times have changed? I guess so. These days people protest to fire the school superintendent. They’re not protesting that too many of our students, black and white, don’t get a quality education in a district that spends over a half billion dollars annually to operate or that too many of our kids can’t qualify for the tremendous job opportunities coming here. They’re protesting because employees are being asked to do their jobs more proficiently! And an elected official tasked with setting policies for the district tells me “times are changing.”

Former Charleston Education Network Director Jon Butzon always says public education in Charleston County will improve when we commit to improving it. I don’t see that commitment coming from folks who write off the desperate condition of public education in Charleston County as a sign of changing times.

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