Do I live in a hidden gem?
June 10, 2008 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean to live in the second-to-worst state for public education?

We live in a unique place in the Charleston, SC area. While the state itself has a terrible educational reputation, my 7 yo son is in a new school with new equipment in a posh secluded neighborhood (we got a deal).

I have been impressed with the school and the topics they are covering, however, is there anything I am failing to consider long-term?

What questions should I be asking myself considering staying in this area vs. Raleigh, NC?
posted by toastchee to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It means that South Carolina's rural poor schools are a tragedy and that local school boards have a tradition of inserting their prejudices into the curriculum.

That said, I would say to trust your instincts over some state-wide ranking/reputation of the school system. If your kid is happy in this school, learning, being challenged, has good teachers and enough materials, then I wouldn't worry too much about the overall reputation of public schools on a state-wide level (except perhaps to advocate for change!)
posted by desuetude at 10:25 AM on June 10, 2008

How the information is gathered and who does it.

SC and GA are routinely near the bottom of the rankings for education because of high school testing, specifically SAT. But it's because those two states both encourage everyone to take the test and (most importantly) actually give the school code to the students that they know won't do well. In many states with "better" rankings, lower performing students aren't given the school code so the student's performance doesn't reflect on the school.

Also, in SC there are fewer private schools. These schools don't effect the education rankings. There are more around Charleston though (Bishop England, Charleston Collegiate (that might be wrong but it used to be Sea Island Academy), and the various church affiliated schools in the area being the only ones I can think of right now) because of its unique history and culture. You'd think that the Charleston County School of the Arts and Academic Magnet would help to balance that out though since they've got a lot of the benefits of a private school (both for students and the school) but counting as a public school. But they're really too small to make that much of a difference.

Maybe most importantly, SC has what is generally considered to be the most difficult of the standardized tests for the age group of your son. We'll have to see if this is still going to be true since PACT was recently voted out in favor of a new test.

When talking to my girlfriend (who is going into early childhood education) and her mother (who teaches 1st grade at Stiles Point Elementary on James Island) they made a comment to the effect of this: Texas has great test scores on paper but the test is the easiest in the country.

All that being said, North Carolina isn't exactly a slack state with education either, especially in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg area. I don't know where Raleigh is so I can't comment on that.

But I wouldn't move that far away just to move up in the national education rankings.
posted by theichibun at 10:27 AM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

First off, Stephen Colbert is from Charleston, so there is some hope.

Really, though, this is a question that's tough to answer because school is not the end-all-be-all of learning, and I say this as someone really invested in schools: I'm a teacher. Look at this question from a parent concerned about poor education (albeit from a perceived-to-be-bad teacher) for some ideas on how to keep the flow of learning happening in spite of problems with schools. You'll note there's a heavy emphasis on experiential stuff and creating an atmosphere where it's OK to be really into learning.

Note also that something you didn't ask about, but might have to consider, is this: if you moved elsewhere, would you be able to provide these same non-school-but-still-learning opportunities to your son? Everything from your commute to your income to whether the area you live in is stimulating to a young mind should be considered: if you suddenly add/subtract an hour of your daily contact time with him, what would that mean. And you call your area unique; think about how this can be expressed to your son to make him love where he lives and really explore what's there when he's a little older.

Overall, I'd wait a bit: let your son set down his own social roots and help him explore what he's into (astronauts? Cape Canaveral! sea creatures? aquarium!) so when he confronts the problems with the schools which seem to be looming ahead in your mind (I don't live in SC, so I don't know what those might be: can you share?), he isn't totally discouraged and has other outlets to feed his muse.

Life is not a race in which you must attend the best schools or have the wealthiest parents to be successful...the fact that you're looking at this question this early means that your son already has a great partner for his development. :)

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 10:29 AM on June 10, 2008

Oh, and desuetude obviously doesn't know about the South Carolina education system. I'll admit that there are schools that enter prejudices into the curriculum (Jefferson Davis Academy in Blackville is a really good example). But you're not going to escape that anywhere (the general practice of local prejudice, not the extreme that is taken by this school which is named as it is for a reason).
posted by theichibun at 10:30 AM on June 10, 2008

I'm an SC native; some of my family went to private schools, some public. From the latter group we've produced a teacher, 2 physicians, a pharmacist, a few engineers, and a jumbo jet pilot in the last couple of decades among others. And these people were at some not- well-regarded (okay, pretty sucky) public schools (i.e. not Irmo). I think Wee Toastchee will turn out just fine.
posted by pointystick at 10:41 AM on June 10, 2008

I'll admit that there are schools that enter prejudices into the curriculum (Jefferson Davis Academy in Blackville is a really good example). But you're not going to escape that anywhere (the general practice of local prejudice, not the extreme that is taken by this school which is named as it is for a reason)

Sorry that I wasn't clear -- I agree with you that the problem is of local prejudice, not that South Carolina is unique in this regard.
posted by desuetude at 10:56 AM on June 10, 2008

You live in the second to worst ranked state in the nation for eduction because your son's school is the top end of the spectrum that is being averaged against these kid's schools. School quality is ranked on a statewide basis, but in reality can vary greatly based on which neighborhood you live in, not to mention which county and which city. Moving from South Carolina to North Carolina won't do anything for your kid educationally. If he is in a good school then I would recommend thanking your lucky stars and staying put, with the caveat that you may want to watch his science teachers and make sure they believe in evolution, and as he gets older check to see if his school has a Gay-Straight Alliance club.
posted by ND¢ at 10:57 AM on June 10, 2008

The big thing you're going to find in southern states with low education rankings is wide disparities. Wide disparities in funding, wide disparities in student preparation, wide disparities in parent involvement, wide disparities in everything.

It means that you ought to be careful when house-hunting about what school district you're in, and even what particular schools your kid would go to from a given address.

You should look ahead to see what middle and high schools your wee bairn would attend from your current address, and check them out. Are you happy with them? Do they have a wide set of AP courses? Do they come in in google-news connected to anti-evolution stuff and lawsuits about segregation and prayer?

SC and GA are routinely near the bottom of the rankings for education because of high school testing, specifically SAT. But it's because those two states both encourage everyone to take the test and (most importantly) actually give the school code to the students that they know won't do well.

On the one hand, participation rates are a factor; a large part of why Iowa always leads the average-SAT score is that only about 5% of students take it because it's an ACT state.

On the other hand, you are absolutely high if you think that the entire difference between scores in SC or GA and other states is due to participation rates, and that there aren't very real reasons why the statewide school systems of SC or GA or FL or TX really do perform relatively poorly.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:04 AM on June 10, 2008

I grew up in Charleston, SC and went to public magnet schools (Buist Academy, Academic Magnet High School). Fellow Buisties and Magneteers went on to Yale, Brown, Chicago, Wesleyan, etc. Others went on to cage fighting in North Charleston. I'm at Cambridge doing a master's degree. To a certain extent, schools are what you make of them and what peer groups you get involved in. SC has particularly bad rural schools, but there are a lot of great schools in Charleston since it's a highly affluent city with a lot of highly educated parents. I wouldn't move to Raleigh due to educational concerns, especially when Charleston has great high schools (AMHS was recently ranked the number ten high school in the country, and it's public. BE is also highly qualified. Seriously consider AMHS, though, it's wonderful).

In short, general statistics don't tell much about a particular city or a particular school. The best thing is to measure the specific educational institution your child is enrolled in. If you MeMail me details about the school and your housing circumstances I can ask my mother, a former School Board member and local politician who's still 'in the know,' so to speak, about the school's quality and possible alternative options. My advice is to try for Buist and get into the magnet 'system,' as these two schools streamline kids into fantastic colleges. Many Charleston parents try every year to get their kids into Buist, only because that guarantees a spot at Magnet. They call it the lottery for a reason (in terms of both your chances and the payoff), but there are clever ways to edge in that I could disclose privately, after checking to see if they still apply.

Good luck!
posted by farishta at 11:39 AM on June 10, 2008

Focusing on the rank of the state public education is a red herring. If you are in a school district that draws from a wealthy neighborhood then your kid's school is likely quite good. You've only given a few details about the school but they are all positive. The only way you'll learn more is by being active in the school and the PTA. It's certainly possible that you could find it lacking in a number of way but I wouldn't consider moving solely on these grounds until you have first hand evidence.

I do think it's wise to wonder about the long term. Find out which High School your child will go to and keep an ear out for its mention by the media or other locals.
posted by BigSky at 12:13 PM on June 10, 2008

my 7 yo son is in a new school with new equipment in a posh secluded neighborhood

I just wanted to point out that doesn't necessarily equate to a quality education. My public high school was one of the best in the nation (top 0.5%) and it was poorly funded -- I was told it was the least funded school in our school district, and it was quite old and in need of the money -- while some other flashier high schools were mediocre to bad. From what I can recall, my elementary school was in a similar situation.

Which isn't to say those things are inherently negatives, just that they don't inherently mean anything period. Other people's comments are more helpful than I could be in regards to what sorts of things are important to look at. I will, however, put this one piece of advice out there because it worked well for my mother.

When my mother was choosing my elementary school (and subsequent schools), she picked the school that had the highest test scores, period. People will say it's bad that schools are forced to teach students to pass standardized tests, and that's true; there's a lot more to education. However, standardized tests, if I may be frank, test very basic knowledge, the likes of which I think any parent would expect their child to go well beyond in the classroom. Also, sometimes when too many students fail the standardized tests, the response is to dumb the tests down. So if a school struggles just to have its students pass standardized tests, I would doubt they're getting much further in the classroom. In fact, one thing you hear teachers lament is that when the students don't pass the standardized tests, they are forced to teach the standardized test even more; they have to.

I can't begin to guess at why the students fail the standardized tests; not my area of expertise. While I appreciate that teachers want to use their time teaching students more varied or worthwhile things than standardized test material, standardized tests are so basic that I can't imagine that a student could handle material beyond it if he failed one. If you can't read, or if you have poor reading comprehension, or if you can't handle basic math or basic science, well... I find the idea that the classroom time shouldn't be spent shoring up those weaknesses unconvincing. The other standardized tests we took in elementary school were subject specific, and I'm not sure all states have these. However, even the sociology and government tests (I don't think they were called "sociology" and "government," I think it was something like "community" or other) were painfully basic.

Which is what they're supposed to be; a baseline for adequacy. Passing those tests is not supposed to be a big deal; learning disabilities aside, it's supposed to be something all students can pass. Having everyone pass the standardized tests doesn't mean a school is fantastic, it means it's at least basic. So if a school's test scores are poor, something is wrong. For whatever reason, students are not getting a very, very basic education there.

My mom sent me to schools that had 95% to 100% of the students pass the standardized tests. My teachers never taught to the tests; instead, they gave us a great education -- the kind parents hope their children will get -- and the standardized tests were nothing. They were just a day off for us, basically, where we didn't have to do any real work, because the quality of our education was far beyond the baseline. We didn't have to be taught reading comprehension in a vacuum, for the sake of the test; it was just an acquired skill that we used in all our subjects. We didn't have to be taught and retaught basic math; it was something we used every day for more complicated operations. The week before the standardized test our teachers would give us a brief review that didn't even last the whole period because it was boring for everyone.

So if I were in your position, I would weight the standardized test scores highly. Not because they're the pinnacle of knowledge, but because they're so basic that to have lots of students failing them is unacceptable. I think it's a better measure of education than how much money the school has.

My mom found a booklet published by the school district that included profiles on all the schools, and it included information like test scores. You can probably find this information online today.
posted by Nattie at 1:09 PM on June 10, 2008

I think the rankings, standardized test scores, etc. are more important when a child gets to high school. You want to be happy with the school and with what your child is learning and experiencing, but you also want your child to have good options when it comes to college. A better school could give your child more options on that front, since a better, more challenging school (and system) will give an application more "points" when admissions officers are plugging things into their equations.

Also, FWIW, I grew up in Raleigh and went to public schools there (graduated about 10 years ago). The schools were excellent when I was there and from what I've heard are only getting better.
posted by weezetr at 3:29 PM on June 10, 2008

Response by poster: These are all great answers, thanks!
posted by toastchee at 12:09 PM on June 11, 2008

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