One year later, Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood exceeds expectations

Story by Jen Jordan / August 11, 2015


That’s when 6-year-old Julius Perry says he’ll go off to college. It’s the first lesson he and his fellow first-graders at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood learned this year.

College names are displayed on the signs as students eat during lunch at Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood. The signs help students identify with different colleges they could attend after graduation. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Julius says he’ll go to the University of South Carolina. When he grows up, he says he wants to be scientist.

“So I can explore the world and discover stuff,” he whispered while he finished a worksheet at his desk on a recent morning.

Julius isn’t your average student. He loves to do homework. He couldn’t wait for the first day of class on July 29. In kindergarten last spring, he scored in the 98th percentile in math and 99th percentile in reading on his standardized tests — up from the 70th percentile in math and 81st percentile in reading last fall.

Of course, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood isn’t your average public school either. It opened last August in the heart of North Charleston, serving kids in pre-kindergarten through first grade as a one-of-a-kind, five-year public-private partnership between the Charleston County School District and the nonprofit Meeting Street Schools. Here, almost 90 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Yet 100 percent of kindergartners met or beat typical growth on their standardized tests last year.

Meeting Street Schools — which also operates two private schools, one in downtown Charleston and one in Spartanburg — was founded on the principle that all children can excel in the classroom, regardless of their ZIP code or socioeconomic status. The mission of Meeting Street Elementary is to create a model of quality public education for kids in under-served neighborhoods. So far, it looks like its model is working.

Last fall, on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress tests, only 35 percent of kindergartners and first-graders at Meeting Street Elementary performed at or above the national average. Many couldn’t read or write their first names. Teachers said they felt like they were starting from scratch. But by spring, students’ test scores had skyrocketed. Not only had the vast majority of students — more than 80 percent — scored above the national average, they outperformed students in other North Charleston Title I elementary schools on those very same tests.

‘Obvious results’
“Holy cow.” That was school board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats’ first reaction when she saw their test scores this summer.

“It’s just very obvious results. That’s what people desperately want to see in education, obvious results,” she said. As the rest of Charleston County schools begin a new academic year next week, board members will be eyeing Meeting Street Elementary’s approach.

“We need to figure out how it can be duplicated. What should be expanded? What are things that worked?” said Coats. “I think we have to sit down and have a very honest conversation. What did they do differently than what we do?”

They do a lot differently, in fact. The principal, Sarah Campbell, is an MBA graduate with the freedom to hire and fire her own teachers. The academic year began in the last week of July, 21/2 weeks earlier than the rest of the school district. Class begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at either 3:30 or 6 p.m. for students in its extended-day program. Every class has two teachers — a lead teacher and teaching fellow — with no more than 18 students. Every classroom is named after the lead teacher’s alma mater. They hang their diplomas on the walls. Students are often referred to as “Gamecocks” or “Tigers” or “Cougars.”

Kids as young as 3 attend full-day preschool. Despite its size, Meeting Street Elementary has two nurses, a school counselor and a bevy of a therapists on staff, specializing in behavioral, literacy, speech and occupational therapy intervention. The renovated building includes a washer, dryer and showers. Students are served five meals, including snacks, a day. The curriculum emphasizes not only academics but also social, emotional and physical growth.

The biggest barrier to implementing some of these innovations in other schools, beyond the will of the school district, of course, would be funding, Coats said. “But could we strategically redirect that money to get this result?”

Chris Allen, chief of staff for Meeting Street Schools, thinks so. Meeting Street Elementary currently receives about $9,000 per student in public funds from the school district, based on enrollment. Private donors and Meeting Street Schools, founded by Sherman Capital CEO Ben Navarro, cover the rest of the school’s expenses, which have included more than $1 million in renovations. When the school expands to the fifth grade, the additional cost will be about $3,000 per student, Allen estimated.

“I don’t think it has to be donor-funded forever,” he said. He noted the passage of last year’s bond referendum funding the district’s capital projects as an example of what can happen when a community steps up to take care of its schools. “More and more thought leaders and school leaders will start to use us as example of what’s possible.”

‘A good place to be’

Meanwhile, Meeting Street Elementary will continue to grow. This year, the student body has more than doubled in size, from 128 to roughly 300 kids. Part of that growth, Campbell said, comes from adding the second grade to accommodate last year’s first-graders. The school’s attendance zone also is bigger.

Reputation may be another factor. “I think word just got out this is a good place to be for kids and families,” she said.

In her office near the front door of the building, where even the woman behind the reception desk has her alma mater, Strayer University, displayed, Campbell pores over spreadsheets full of data. “We get sort of obsessive about it,” she said.

A Teach for America veteran, Campbell was the former chief learning officer at the KIPP Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit charter network. She greets each of her “kiddos” by name as they walk into the door every morning. She looks them in the eyes and shakes their hands. Before the start of the school year, she knocked on every parent’s door to introduce herself.

One of the school’s goals is for all students, like Julius, to score in the 85th percentile on their MAP tests by the end of the fifth grade. Students in the 85th percentile, Campbell said, typically receive a score of a 24 on the ACT college entrance exam, which is what they’ll need to qualify for a state LIFE Scholarship and go to college in South Carolina tuition-free.

Campbell’s personal goal is for her students to reach the 85th percentile by the end of second grade. And her students may be on track to do just that.

Louisiana native Drew Hebert moved from downtown Charleston to Meeting Street Elementary’s attendance zone specifically so his daughter, 4-year-old MaCaylah, could go to school there. A single father, Hebert works odd jobs while he tries to start his own faith-based recovery center. He never went to college, but he hopes his daughter will.

“All I did was have dreams my whole life. I was good in school, but the older I got, the worse I got,” he said. “I want to teach MaCaylah from a young age to literally do whatever you want to do. … As long as she’s doing what makes her happy and as long as she can give glory to God for whatever she accomplishes, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

The Post and Courier


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“MSA is a family. Once you’re in, you’re in. They said they would follow our kids from K-3 to college and they actually lived up to what they said they would do. Not only did MSA challenge my daughter academically but it also exposed her to new things that she probably wouldn’t have been exposed to at our previous neighborhood school. Our journey at MSA was exciting and rewarding. They actually walk the walk.”

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