Story on suspensions misses the mark

Story by Meeting Street Schools / April 19, 2017


When I travel around our state and speak about the need to better educate under-resourced kids, I am often asked what is the biggest challenge of all. That answer is an easy one: Our greatest impediment is the entrenched forces that protect the status quo of education in the face of so many indicators of abject failure. The protectors are fueled by a toxic combination of beliefs: that our system is primarily accountable for how it treats adults as opposed to how it educates children, and that results-oriented thinking has no place in education. They are unfazed by tangible data such as the fact that only 2 percent of South Carolina’s African American high school graduates met ACT benchmarks for college-readiness in 2016; and that nearly 50 percent of South Carolina’s under-resourced fourth graders read below basic levels, rendering their prospects for high school graduation doubtful. They give scant attention to the recent U.S. News and World Report study ranking South Carolina’s education system dead last in the country.

Unfortunately, the recent Post and Courier article by Paul Bowers discussing suspensions at Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood appears to be aligned with these entrenched forces. It takes one piece of data out of context and ignores the hundreds of factors that go into creating a successful environment for educating under-resourced children and their families. Why not tell the whole story?
Why not talk about the fact that we hold not only the students and families in our school accountable, but literally everyone in our building … from the receptionist who greets visitors at the front desk, to the newly hired teachers who we thoroughly indoctrinate in our school’s culture before they set foot in the classroom, to the seasoned teachers who are continually coached and supported by the academic leaders of our school, to the members of our support staff who daily help our kids and families cope with problems that many of us can hardly imagine? How about mentioning that we pull out all the stops to get 100 percent parent/caregiver participation in report card conferences; and that we relentlessly follow up on student absences, even to the point of our staff picking up children from their homes when necessary?

Why not talk about how we are so determined to employ only the very best teachers at our school that we started with a group of over 2,000 applicants last year to fill just 40 spots? Or that our teachers and leaders work more days and attend more professional development than any staff in South Carolina?

Why not talk about the extraordinary talent and dedication of Brentwood’s principal Sarah Campbell, whose passion for serving under-resourced children led her to agree to run Brentwood despite an already storied career leading a National Blue Ribbon School, and serving as Chief Academic Officer at one of the country’s foremost organizations educating under-resourced children?

Why not talk about the fact that we continue to innovate every year, including partnering with MUSC in 2016 to start the first-of-its-kind fully-staffed clinic offering medical, dental and emotional wellness services to all of our students and staff?

Or the fact that when we looked at the data around suspensions last year we decided they needed to be lower, so we started an in-school suspension program and hired a professional behavior interventionist, leading to a current suspension rate that is only a fraction of last year’s? And that empowering schools with this kind of flexibility, responsiveness and the ability to take quick decisive action is precisely what drives better results?

Why not talk about the fact that CCSD has potentially as much or more oversight over Brentwood as other CCSD schools, because the superintendent herself sits on Brentwood’s Executive Committee and meets with the principal quarterly to review performance results?

And most important of all, why not talk about the enormous impact that Brentwood’s higher test scores have on the likely outcomes for these children? Why not report the fact that our students scored in the 71st percentile in reading and 73rd percentile in math (almost eliminating the bottom quartile), while other North Charleston Title One schools scored on average in the 42nd and 39th percentile respectively in 2016?

What sort of school do our critics want for our kids? A school with little accountability, where poorly performing teachers are perpetually retained and the very best teachers are paid exactly the same as the very worst ones? Where decision-making takes place from a central bureaucracy and no grass-roots level innovation takes place? Where the behavior of a small number of students regularly roadblocks teaching and learning for the large majority who come to school ready to engage?

When you take into account all of the things that weren’t discussed in Mr. Bower’s article, it really seems more like an opinion piece. And I would ask that next time The Post and Courier publishes such a critique, that it appear in the appropriate section of the paper.

Benjamin Navarro is the founder and CEO of Charleston-based Sherman Financial Group and the founder of Meeting Street Schools — a nonprofit dedicated to providing educational opportunity to under-resourced students.

Op-Ed appeared in The Post and Courier on 4-19-17


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