By Barney Blakeney
A few years ago I lived near the first location of the Meeting Street Academy School on King Street. The school was across the street from my house. Each weekday morning I was awakened by the sound of children playing before classes began. It was a joyful sound. Them lil sapsuckers would run and scream like little banshees ’til their teachers herded them into the building.
I’m amazed by children – fascinated by the miracle of their growth and development. I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of children born and go through the various stages of development. It never ceases to amaze me how little ones become big ones. I saw a recent picture of Anton with gray in his beard. I remember that boy used to wake me up as he watched cartoons before going to school. I got a lot of joy watching the kids at Meeting Street Academy run and scream. Sometimes it seemed that’s all they did – run and scream. Too bad they have to become adults. You get dumber as you get older, I believe.
I found Meeting Street Academy interesting for some other reasons as well. Several of my friends had grandchildren attending the school that serves kids three-years-old through fifth grade. In a community rapidly transitioning from predominantly Black to predominantly white, and where most white parents sent their children either to predominantly white schools in other communities or to private schools, Meeting Street Academy was a private school where most of the children were Black.
More interestingly tuition cost to parents is minimal, about $600 per year. Founder Ben Navarro, a local businessman, is CEO. And thanks to the generosity of donors, individuals, corporations and foundations, Meeting Street Academy offers tuition assistance to families with demonstrated financial need and underwrites funding for the schools. Tuition is income based.
I’ve heard a lot of good things about Meeting Street Academy, so I visited the school a couple of weeks ago and met with Principal Dirk Bedford, a former principal at Julian Mitchell Elementary School and Kathleen King, director of Alumni and Family Partnerships. The school’s mission is to empower young people from underserved neighborhoods to become confident, productive and principled members of society through excellence in academics. Its philosophy is to give each student as much as he needs as early as possible.
“Part of our job is to shine a light on what’s possible for kids,” Bedford said. To enable them to realize those possibilities Meeting Street Academy provides an array of resources to its students. Small class sizes allow teachers to give daily instruction in English and math during a school day that’s 30 minutes longer than those at typical Charleston County School District schools. Bedford said most of the school’s approximately 300 students stay through its 6 p.m. extended day program. Meeting Street Academy students also start the school year about three weeks earlier than CCSD schools.
They spend that extended day time engaged in various activities such as studying, being tutored and dance. It pays off. Meeting Street Academy students perform academically on par with students at ‘Excellent’-rated Buist Academy and Mount Pleasant Academy. Memphis, Tenn.-based musical director Donald O’Conner, who has worked with touring performers such as Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, teaches performing arts to the approximately 300 students at Meeting Street Academy. All grade levels participate. Thirty-two students participate in the touring group that has performed at Moja’s opening, the Mayor’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at schools in North Carolina, at the Dock Street Theatre and most recently for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin L. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis last April.
Meeting Street Academy graduated its first fifth-graders in 2015. Since then it’s had 65 graduates. King said most graduates go on to Charleston County School Of The Arts. That’s due, in no small part, to teachers and parents. Teachers at Meeting Street Academy spend 21 more days on the job than CCSD teachers. That includes teacher development, professional development and teacher training days. About one-third of teachers are Black. The school lost one teacher last year. In 2017 the S.C. Chamber of Commerce voted the school the second best place to work.
And family involvement is most important. Parents are required to volunteer at least 10 hours per year at the school. Most give more. Bedford meets twice during the school year with each student’s guardian. The school holds two annual cookouts for the students and their families. Its student and family support services even includes pharmaceutical assistance that provides medications.
Bedford acknowledges Meeting Street Academy isn’t perfect, but it’s a model that probably should be duplicated. That’s being done at CCSD partnership sister schools – Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood and Meeting Street Elementary @ Burns in North Charleston. Another sister school is Meeting Street Academy Spartanburg in Spartanburg.
While not everyone thinks Meeting Street Academy is the best thing since sliced bread, without question it puts more on the table for students than a lot of primary grade schools serving predominantly Black kids. Ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about – putting as much on the table for kids as possible? And old codgers like me, who remember those youthful days when running and screaming was all the fun in the world, get to watch ‘em play.