This column originally appeared in The Aiken Standard on Sunday, April 12, 2015.
In my final year of graduate school, I decided to join the founding team for a Knowledge is Power Program charter school in the 9th Ward of Post-Katrina New Orleans.
My formative years were spent working to transform the lives of under-served students by focusing on closing the achievement gap. I considered this issue, and still do today, the greatest civil rights issue of our time.
When I began teaching in 2010, I entered a unique Louisiana school system called the Recovery School District. That district was created in 2003 and was the first of its kind – a district aimed at improving the state’s lowest performing schools.
While so many students made an impact on my life, Earnicka, Lamichael and Saisha are three students I think of daily. They made dramatic gains at school despite the immense challenges they faced at home: poverty, hunger, absentee parents and the highest murder rate by neighborhood in the country. Few across the city and state believed that the students coming from such impoverished backgrounds could achieve in the classroom. But when these once failing schools began to achieve with the top-performing schools in the state, the public’s perception of the Recovery School District rapidly changed.
Now, five years later, as a proud South Carolinian, it is time for our students to be afforded the same opportunity.
Our elected leaders should explore the formation of a South Carolina Achievement School District. These are school districts created to oversee dramatic school turnarounds across a state, with a focus on chronically under-performing schools.
This type of district, led by an autonomous superintendent with a lean central office and the power to create turnaround, can eliminate bureaucratic red tape and outdated practices too often embedded in low performing schools.
Most importantly, the Achievement School District directly benefits students learning in the classroom.
In the Recovery School District in New Orleans, my principal was able to spend an hour each day in “real-time coaching” when behavior management was impeding student performance.
Would a principal have that much time to devote to one teacher in a traditional public school setting? Absolutely not. Teachers, like me, knew that life circumstances didn’t have to determine educational success or failure for these children. With incredible leadership, we created a new culture in the Recovery School District schools – a culture of high expectations where words such as grit, teamwork, humility and character were not just taught, but infused into the daily routines for students and teachers. My students saw incredible academic growth in short periods of time and their enthusiasm for learning was palpable in the classroom. Academic success has continued in the years following. In 2008, only 28 percent of Recovery School District students were performing at or above grade level on state tests.
In just five years, that number had grown to 57 percent – a 29 percent jump that outpaced the state average growth by 20 percent.
South Carolina faces a similar education crisis to Louisiana. One not highlighted by a natural disaster, but instead by years of neglect. Status quo solutions to South Carolina’s public education crisis have been tried for decades. Those “solutions” have failed to create measurable improvements. In the end, it is up to South Carolinians and our elected officials to create policies and systems that ensure all students in South Carolina have the tools necessary to be successful in life. An Achievement School District, with a transformational leader, would be a bold first step.
We need a radical shift in thinking to improve our schools in the Palmetto State. Other states in the Southeast are following the Recovery School District model and they have seen dramatic improvements. It is time we follow suit. A bipartisan and accountable solution, a South Carolina model of an Achievement School District is urgently needed for our students. They deserve nothing less.