“Left Behind: The Unintended Consequences of School Choice”

Kahleb Parks and TJ Levine peer from the locker room door before their playoff game against Bishop England High School. North Charleston won moving on the the next round of play-offs. picture courtesy Grace Beahm

Jennifer Hawes Berry of the Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote this account of a Charleston high school struggling to improve and raise its graduation rate, even as its enrollment dwindles in the era of school choice. The main effect of school choice seems to be the damage inflicted on the local public high school. The original story was published in 2015 and updated in 2020.

She writes:

Once a powerhouse Class AAAA school, North Charleston High can barely field sports teams anymore. Half of its classrooms sit empty. Saddled with a reputation for fights, drugs, gangs and students who can’t learn, middle-class families no longer give it a chance.

This is the unintended consequence of school choice.

Two-thirds of students in its attendance zone now flee to myriad magnets, charters and other school choices that beckon the brightest and most motivated from schools like this one.

But not all can leave, not those without cars or parents able to navigate their complex options. Concentrated poverty is left behind. So is a persistent “At Risk” rating from the state

Berry writes about the senior prom. Before “choice” drained the school of students, the prom drew 250 graduates. Now only about 60 attend.

She writes:

Fresh from jail, the 17-year-old has been at North Charleston High for six days. Principal Robert Grimm fought enrolling the teen given he came with an armed robbery conviction.

A district official said: You have to.

So, the new kid walked into the glass front doors and down the cinder block hallways, bringing with him only a handful of credits and a rap sheet.

Six days later, as students surge into the hallways during a morning class change, he starts shouting and bumping into another boy on the third floor.

Assistant Principal Vanessa Denney responds to the call for help. An ebony-haired Jersey girl, this is her first year at the school. She rushes toward the teens, fueled by an instinct to protect.

But the new kid crosses an invisible and clearly understood line.

With both hands, he shoves her down onto the floor hard enough to leave bruises. Denney doesn’t top 5 feet in stilettos. He outweighs her by 50 pounds.

Other students hurry over to help. Rodrik Rodriguez, the school’s burly North Charleston police officer, barrels in. He orders the student to calm down.

The 17-year-old doesn’t calm down. Rodriguez arrests him.

Then the teen crosses another clear line: He threatens to come back and shoot the officer, Rodriguez writes in a police report. “Watch what happens when I get back. I’m going to straight drop you, brah.”

New charges accompany the teen’s return to jail: threatening the life of a public official and second-degree assault and battery. He faces prison time, if convicted, and expulsion.

So the 17-year-old who Grimm didn’t want to enroll, who arrived with few credits and stayed six days, may wind up counting as a non-graduate on North Charleston High’s critical graduation rate.

The numbers game

It’s Wednesday morning, when several North Charleston High staffers will gather around an oval conference table next to Grimm’s office to tackle an onerous task: scouring the list of students who will count as dropouts because they have vanished from these hallways.

Every name is critical.

When a graduating class has fewer than 100 students, each one is crucial to that all-important number on the state report card: THE GRADUATION RATE.

With the seniors set to cross the stage in a month, time is running out to find students who last enrolled here but might be going to school elsewhere — or who could be persuaded to come back and finish high school.

Denney sits in her office poring over a roster of students counted as enrolled at the school. An educator turned detective, she must track down those whose names show up on the list but whose bodies aren’t warming a classroom seat.

If she can prove the teens are enrolled somewhere else, North Charleston High can scratch them from its rolls — and boost its graduation rate. If not, they count.

Report in hand, Denney heads downstairs to a conference room beside Grimm’s office, joining Data Clerk Kathleen Luciano.

Grimm huffs in, radiating ire.

A parent scheduled to meet with him didn’t show up. For the seventh time. And he’s just learned that two new students have appeared on the school’s non-graduate list. Both enrolled here as freshmen, then never stepped foot on campus.

Because North Charleston High has become so small — school choice drained 700 students from its halls this year alone — every student who shows up on that roster but doesn’t graduate in four years drags the school’s graduation rate down more than 1 percent.

Now he fears they’ll look like two more dropouts on the school’s graduation rate this year.

Grimm grabs his cell phone, dials the school district offices and makes his case.

“But she never stepped foot on this campus!” he insists.

As of today, the school has 84 students who should be seniors and graduate this year.

Of those, 58 likely will cross the stage in a month. Another 12 are self-contained special education students who are unable to pursue traditional diplomas. Yet they will count as non-graduates on North Charleston High’s state report card because rules about treatment of children with disabilities require all students be calculated alike.

But it means that this school, which has the highest percentage of special education students of all high schools in Charleston County, can achieve at most a 77 percent graduation rate, still below the district’s goal, even if every other student here graduates in four years.

The state likely will give it closer to 66 percent.

That’s because, as of this meeting, 14 students who should be crossing the stage are God knows where instead.

Denney recently found one should-be senior on Facebook posting photos of herself partying at clubs, new baby at home. Another earned a GED — but will count as a non-graduate per state reporting rules. One is in a psychiatric hospital refusing to do school work.

Then there is the 17-year-old charged with assaulting Denney. Another new student just was arrested for two gun violations in his neighborhood. Both likely will be expelled. Both could spend time in prison.

A student peeks into the conference room door. He just arrived at school, an hour late because he relies on a CARTA bus. He just moved — again — this time to live with an older sister.

But at least he is here, heading to a classroom.

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