Many in West Ashley upset over district’s plan to combine middle schools

by Bill Davis | News Editor

Big changes are coming to both
C. E. Williams Middle School for the Creative and Scientific Arts and West Ashley Advanced Studies middle schools, and many local politicians, activists, and parents are not pleased.

Last month, the Charleston County School Board voted to convert the two schools into grade-specific academies. All sixth graders in the Dist. 10 West Ashley area would be sent to West Ashley Middle, and the seventh and eighth graders to the C.E. Williams’ new buildings on the campus of West Ashley High School beginning in Fall of 2020.

The two schools have a significant history of differences in racial and economic makeups, as well as academic achievement scores.

C.E. Williams has been nearly majority white with higher family incomes and higher student scores, while West Ashley Middle has for the past few years been predominantly minority-majority, with lower scores and household incomes according to state Department of Education report card information.

The Dist. 10 Constituent Board, which serves under the county school board, has struggled in recent years to establish fair and equitable enrollment zones in hopes of equalizing racial profiles and academic opportunities between the two schools.

Several sources interviewed for this story agree that the plan could kick off a fight similar to the one that followed initial decisions to shift some students from high-achieving St. Andrews School of Math and Science to Stono Park Elementary, which was seen as poorer and with a higher minority population.

Eventually, the enrollment zone for the newly rebuilt Stono Park was adjusted, and the uproar subsided.

Dist. 10 chair Rodney Lewis was the primary author of this new merger plan. Having been a student at C.E. Williams back when it first opened and the driveway wasn’t even paved, he’s seen the two paths the schools have since taken.

Lewis says one of the toughest fights he’s faced is trying to change West Ashley Middle’s image as being a haven for tougher kids. “I don’t know where it started, but once it got started it’s proved impossible to change,” Lewis says.

School board decisions to move talented and experienced administrators away from the school have not helped, he says. “I keep having the same conversation with the board: How can we expect to see schools succeed when it seems like one of the schools changes its principal nearly every single year,” says Lewis.

Lewis says the attention now being spent on middle schools is natural following the recently finished work retooling and re-building elementaries in West Ashley. He adds that he has case studies in both Florida and Georgia where grade-specific schools have been shown to be effective.

County school board spokesman Andrew Pruitt says: “This decision, like others that were either approved or being recommended, attempts to address the fact that many students in CCSD do not have equal access to quality educational offerings, even in neighboring schools. These two middle schools differ in both student makeup by race and poverty by approximately 20 percentage points. The two schools also differ in the course offerings and programs available for students.”

Pruitt went on to say that the Dist. 10 “geographic layout” makes rezoning the schools difficult without “extreme gerrymandering.”

The School Board is in the middle of an ambitious effort to remake nearly half of the district’s schools, including removal of partial magnet status from certain schools, while combining other schools, like Buist and Memminger elementaries downtown.

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-West Ashley) attended the Board meeting where it voted to combine the schools, and did his best to politely convey his and many of his constituents’ concerns and dislike for the plan.

One meeting attendee was not so polite, as she was escorted from the meeting after yelling an expletive at the Board.

While Stavrinakis is still keeping away from crass language, he’s not yet ready to unveil his hand as to what he plans to do at the state level to combat a plan he considers ill-conceived, poorly explained, and brought for a vote too quickly.

Stavrinakis holds that school merger should only become an option when there are dwindling student populations that force the district’s hand. In this case, both schools have healthy average daily student numbers

Additionally, he says the merger is a bad idea historically, as it dovetails with what he sees as the district’s eight to 10-year cycle of upsetting the educational delivery system in West Ashley.

Stavrinakis scolds the district for holding meetings regionally where the merger was discussed, saying it would have been more effective, and fair for affected families if the meetings had been held at the affected schools with plenty of warning.

School Board member Chris Fraser says what’s driving the change is an attempt to make up for educational disparities across the district and between the two middle schools, specifically.

Fraser, who voted against the merger does not feel that “every ‘I’ has been dotted, nor every ‘T’ has been crossed” in the formation of the plan, which he says was rushed out to the public. Philosophically, he has no problem with the idea of the merger, but says there’s not enough information coming from district staff for him to change his vote.

Fellow School Board member Todd Garrett, similarly, is not sure this combined enrollment zone plan is the best going forward for West Ashley. He said that members like him who voted for the plan could change their votes by the Dec. 16 School Board meeting, reopening the discussion.

That couldn’t be too soon for Ragan DuBose-Morris, a parent with a 5th grade student who could be directly affected by the plan if it goes into effect next fall.

She worries that West Ashley Middle’s facility is substandard, despite a recent renovation.

Additionally, she echoes Stavrinakis’ concern that not enough public discussion was vetted before the district decision was made. She likens it to a band-aid being ripped off too quickly, creating new wounds.

Education activist Frank Beylotte, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat representing West Ashley on the School Board last election cycle, wants the district to present data on how this move would improve both schools.

“I just want them to show their work,” says Beylotte, a scientist at MUSC. “This just came out of nowhere.”

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