November 28, 2017 – As we all come back from the Thanksgiving break along with area teachers and students, how appropriate that we should receive an update on our schools from the Superintendent for the Charleston County School District (“CCSD”), Gerrita Postlewait. Dr. Postlewait brings a great deal of experience to the school district having served as Chair of the State Board of Education and as a member of the national governing board of the American Association of School Administrators. She is a mother, a grandmother, an aunt and very much brings her parental experience to her relationships with the CCSD administrators, teachers and students.
The greatest challenge Dr. Postlewait sees for our schools is to reach those children who do not thrive in the school environment. For every child who does thrive there is one who has been left behind. Charleston County has schools which are rated as the best in the country and some of the most dedicated and highest-functioning teachers and administrators, but we also have five schools where less than eight percent of students read at their grade levels. To Dr. Postlewait the cause of this problems goes back generations to times when teaching students of color was a crime. The school system was built upon this state of facts and this foundation has led to the acceptance of unsatisfactory performance as a norm for many schools in predominantly socio-economically disadvantaged communities.
One important way Dr. Postlewait sees to overcome this systemic problem is to truly celebrate teachers and administrators who work at these failing schools. Currently the starting annual salary for CCSD teachers is around $37,000.00. In contrast other area school districts start teachers at $51,000.00 a year. It is imperative, she says, for us to level this playing field to attract the best teachers who can turn these troubled schools around.
Another very important effort is to get students into learning environments at an earlier age. She noted that studies clearly show starting children in pre-school programs at three years of age enhance those children’s ability to learn for the remainder of their school experience. Unfortunately, it is the very students who most need this leg up, predominantly children of color from lower income families, who do not have this opportunity available to them. By the time they get in the school system other students are far past them in ability and they are simply not ready for school. These students are often placed in classes with students having special needs – not because of any innate disability, but just because they lack the skills of their peers.
The lack of early childhood acclamation to the school environment according to Dr. Postlewait also leads to problems with student behavior. Many of these children get labeled as discipline problems and often they end up in the juvenile justice system. These records can often follow these children even after their school experience ends limiting their employment opportunities and earning potential.
The antiquated system used in many school districts to measure graduation and class advancement qualification compounds the problems of children in these low-performing schools. In the early 1900s educators focused on “Carnegie units” to measure educational progress. These systems placed the emphasis on time in class, rather than proficiency, to determine progress – often requiring grades of only 60%. Dr. Postlewait noted that none of us would be satisfied with employees who are only 60% proficient at their skills and yet acceptance of this benchmark in failing schools is the norm.
The agrarian design of the school year also hurts children who do not thrive in the school environment. These children are already starting behind their peers and having long periods away from school only widens the gap between them and those who thrive. Because of the economic position of the families these children come from, their parents often are in greater need of extended hours, then the parents of children already doing well in the school system. Extending the school year away from the outdated farming season model could substantially improve the school experience for these at-risk students.
Dr. Postlewait is proud that the CCSD is striving to create a culture of excellence in our schools. She knows her teachers and her administrators can excel and can impart this culture to the students. But so much must be done outside the school system to help elevate failing schools and at-risk students. We are business leaders, she says, must insist on excellence, not failure, in our schools. We must demand good graduates and, thus, good employees. We must expect our school board members to be committed to public schools and public education. Where possible we need to offer internships and apprenticeships. When these actions are taken, Dr. Postlewait says we will see our schools improve and as a result our businesses and our lives and the lives of those around us.
— Alex Dallis, Keyway Committee