By Barney Blakeney
I’m not really a supporter of charter schools. I subscribe to the KISS theory – Keep It Simple, Stupid. If we insure all public schools are quality schools that provide the highest quality education possible to students, I don’t really see a need for charter schools. Specialty schools that are accessible to every student may be okay, but as with most stuff, we allow our ignorance to corrupt even our school options.
So I was reluctant a couple of years ago when former Charleston County School Board member Tom Ducker asked me to consider joining the board of directors for a new charter school some folks were trying to develop. The premise for the school – making a high school diploma accessible to thousands of Charleston County students who have dropped out of the school system seemed valid, but I couldn’t shake the influence I got years earlier.
I covered the development of Charleston County’s first magnet school, Buist Academy, back in the 1980s. Buist formerly was an elementary school that served Black kids in the ‘Borough’, the Ansonbourough and Wraggsbourough communities along Calhoun Street. Sitting across the street from Emanuel AME Church, Aunt Juanita Smith Jordan, a 42-year teacher, had taught there. It was closed after white flight from the peninsula, gentrification and school redistricting scattered Black families and kids all over the place.
During CCSD’s fight to avoid federal intervention looming in a racial desegregation lawsuit, some folks got the bright idea to create a quality elementary school that would attract white students to Constituent District 20 and Buist Academy was born. Most of us could see the handwriting on the wall – white elementary school kids later would need a high school – and Academic Magnet High School was born.
By the time I started writing for the Georgetown paper in the mid-1990s, magnet schools that attracted white students had popped up all over the place and charter schools had begun to augment them. They offered another option to white parents wanting to sidestep broken neighborhood schools serving majority Black students. Back then I covered an AME Church conference in Georgetown when Bishop John Hurst Adams railed against charter schools as a new segregation tool.
It didn’t take long before Black folks picked up on that, as James Brown might say. White folks took that ball and ran with it and soon, Charleston County had more charter schools than any other public school district in the state. Not only could parents autonomously determine what went on at charter schools, but they were money makers! Charter schools became a vital part of the education industry.
As might be expected, some Black folks followed suit. Black charter schools came into being supposedly to serve Black kids left behind in inadequate failing neighborhood schools. A few did that. We can count on one hand truly successful Black charter schools like Charleston Development Academy. But some were thinly-veiled financial tools that provided jobs and income to staff and administrators, but few benefits to students. Black folks need to get up offa that thing – supporting charter schools that do very little for us beyond giving a few people some jobs while our kids go to academic hell in a handbasket.
I don’t buy the argument that white folks also spend a lot of money on stupid stuff that don’t benefit kids so Black folks should be able to do the same. Nobody should be wasting our money! But at the end of the day, white kids gon be alright. Their daddies control the economy in which they’ll get opportunities despite their ignorance. Black kids don’t have that luxury. We can’t afford to waste resources.
All those thoughts ran through my mind when I was asked to participate on the board for Charleston Accelerated Academy. But mostly I asked how this will benefit Black kids? Charleston Acceleration Academy is a free public charter high school sponsored by the South Carolina Public Charter School District. The school opened at the Septima Clark Academy site on James Island last August. Students who are currently eligible for grades 9-12 and under the age of 21 are encouraged to apply.
According to the study, “Zeroing In on Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America’s City,” some 13,650 (about 15 percent) of youth in the Charleston/North Charleston geographical area are considered disconnected. The study defines disconnected youth as “…young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school.” Charleston Acceleration Academy targets those young people for enrollment and provides them the necessary supports to earn a high school diploma. A lot of those are Black kids.
Charleston Acceleration Academy has partnered with Acceleration Academies to implement their unique re-engagement model. Acceleration Academies offers a competency-based blended learning model with flexible schedules and a staff of highly trained certified teachers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, social workers and life coaches to help young adults overcome the barriers to obtaining a high school diploma and getting back on track to college or a career.
CAA offers the tools needed to help students overcome personal barriers to attendance and engagement that include services which allow graduate candidates the flexibility to work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, individualized learning plans which are tailored for each graduate candidate’s individual schedule and focus on the next step with hands-on life & career coaching.
CAA is a success story. I talked to Ducker Monday. In the eight months since opening the first site, CAA has enrolled about 300 candidates for diplomas. The board has entered negotiations with Trident Technical College to open a second site at its North Charleston campus and is developing a five-year strategic plan that could take the program to Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Partnering with Trident Tech offers students opportunities to obtain dual credits towards their high school diplomas and a TTC degree.
I have no delusions CAA is perfect, a quick fix for Black kids. But it’s the best option I see on the table. When it comes to charter schools, that’s the kind of charter school I can support.