Meeting Street Schools Gives Charleston Students Opportunity to Succeed

More than half of children residing in the Charleston County (S.C.) School District are eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Charleston County’s poverty rate is 18 percent higher than the national average. Too often, children from minority groups underperform in reading and math compared with national averages, and administrators and teachers face enormous challenges in educating students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

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Source: Meeting Street Schools

Meeting Street Schools (MSS), a consortium of three schools in South Carolina (two private; one a hybrid public/private school), has taken a unique approach in educating these kids.

MSS opened its flagship independent school serving students from pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade in Charleston in 2008. A second private school in Spartanburg followed. And last year, MSS entered a joint-venture with the Charleston County School District.

To gain admission, students must qualify for free and reduced lunch and be zoned for an underperforming public school. Students start school at age three, learning emotional, intellectual, and physical skills before entering kindergarten at the traditional age of five. School principals have full autonomy to make hiring and firing decisions, and all classrooms are staffed with two teachers: a lead and a teaching fellow.

The MSS school year is almost three weeks longer than traditional public schools. Class starts at 7 a.m. and ends at either 3:30 or 6 p.m. — most kids stay for the extended learning. Students receive three meals each day along with comprehensive medical care.

So far, the results have been encouraging. MSS students show significant progress in reading and math test scores. The first cohort of students who entered in 2008 and are now in fifth grade scored well above the national average on on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) reading and math test compared with their peers in high-poverty schools funded by federal Title I dollars.

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Source: Meeting Street Schools

“The idea that your educational opportunity would be determined by where you were born, by your ZIP code, to me it’s really unfair. It’s un-American,” said Meeting Street founder and CEO Ben Navarro in a recent video message. “And so we’re going to do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen … first and foremost, Meeting Street Academy serves under-resourced children and families that want the best education that they can get and don’t necessarily have access to.”

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Source: Meeting Street Schools

Chris Allen, MMS chief of staff, told Opportunity Lives that they place an intense focus on teacher training, with more than double the amount of professional development days compared with other schools, as well as rigorous administrative evaluations and weekly one-on-one coaching from principals.

“I can say confidently that Ben’s motivation for starting Meeting Street Academy in 2008, which would eventually morph into MSS as we added schools, is a very deep belief that all kids deserve an opportunity to achieve their version of the American Dream,” Allen said. “And given that the schools that many if not most under-resourced kids are required to attend due to their ZIP code, this is not possible. So, we are working hard to challenge that reality. Bricks-and-mortar examples with unarguable achievement data go a long way toward helping us and others who are working on this make the case.”   

Allen said than in 2014, more than 1,000 people applied for just 19 teaching spots. Another bonus: each MSS campus employs a director of operations to handle all administrative and bureaucratic activities such as late buses, leaky roofs, or dealing with vendors. This lets the principal spend nearly all of her time in classrooms and working with teachers.

South Carolina’s junior U.S. Senator, Tim Scott, is a fan of the MSS model. “They get teachers that show up to work every day realizing that the parents are involved, the administrators support them, and they have the time to do one thing: teach that kid,” he said.

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Allen said parents are heavily invested in the success of MSS. At the system’s two private schools, parents are interviewed before their child can enroll, and they must sign a contract pledging their participation throughout the year.

“A parental interview is an important part of our admissions process,” Allen said. “It sets the stage from day one regarding expectations and what that has allowed for is a very open and communicative school where parents feel welcome, invited, and part of the school every day all year long.”

Parents at Brentwood, the joint public-private school, aren’t required to sign a contract, but the principal hosts a short “community celebration” every Friday where all families are invited to come into the school and take part in a pep rally.

Although private schools generally outperform public schools, the Brentwood joint venture offers an interesting model for boosting students from otherwise low-performing schools.

Other school districts have noticed, Allen said.

“Nothing like this had been done before in South Carolina, and it was a fairly intense discussion. However, in the end we have a model that has proven to all that we will be able to recruit, retain, and grow teachers in a public setting — and that teachers are willing to forego state pensions, tenure, etc. in order to teach,” Allen said. “We’ve found with our teachers that they’re 100 percent focused and want to teach in schools where the kids and families need it the most.”

Carrie Sheffield is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.