Members in the Community: “Rejecting the soft bigotry of low expectations”

This story comes from one of our member companies Sherman Financial Group. Meeting Street Academy (MSA) was founded by Sherman “…upon the belief that all children deserve an excellent education regardless of their geographic or socioeconomic circumstances…” (Sherman Financial Group).

Early Friday morning, I started my day by reading a column that appeared [in Post & Courier] titled “The Warring Forces in the Education Battle.” Later, I visited one of the third- grade classrooms in our Title One School, Meeting Street Elementary @ Brentwood, a public-private partnership school run by Meeting Street Schools with the power to make all staffing decisions independently and choose our own best practices for educating under-resourced kids. As I observed the learning taking place that morning, I was filled with great optimism for our students and deeply disturbed by what I had read.

I have no doubt the authors were well-intentioned, but their argument protecting the status quo of education betrays the children of South Carolina in the most insidious way possible.

In case you missed it, the authors basically argued that due to the circumstances of under-resourced kids outside of school, there is little we can do to improve the horrible outcomes we currently experience in almost all public schools serving these kids — who, by the way, make up over half of our students in South Carolina. The authors would have us believe that the conditions these kids face outside of school — their family incomes, transiency, and lack of access to health care, employment and mental health services — make it impossible to expect that we can achieve educational
outcomes that are consistent with more affluent children. This is indeed the soft bigotry of low expectations.

As I sat in that third-grade classroom, I watched two highly effective teachers use cutting-edge curriculum as they taught kids about “juicy words” from a book about a traveling African American family. The teachers incorporated breakout groups, effective classroom management techniques, gentle peer pressure, and pure joy of teaching to ensure that all kids participated and performed. During that session, a specialist entered the room, and a child who needed help happily dashed off to receive one-on-one instruction. It was like watching a finely tuned orchestra perform, where the whole became more than the sum of the parts! And then, what really blew me away, was that I walked into the third grade classroom next door and observed exactly the same thing happening — same book, same juicy words, same music being played by the orchestra. So what does all this mean in terms of outcomes?

If you came to one of our Friday community celebrations, where all families are invited and many attend, you would see the schoolwide culture of caring and excellence; the implementation of our “Path to Success” life skills curriculum; and the report card conferences where 100 percent attendance is guaranteed by a staff that relentlessly tracks down any absent parents and caregivers. And most importantly, you would see the bottomless commitment Brentwood’s teachers have to our kids and the comfort they take in the expectation that the child’s next teacher will care just as much
and be just as diligent as they are. If ever that expectation isn’t met, that next teacher will be managed out, because all decisions are made based on what is best for kids.

And what about those pesky test scores? Look at how Brentwood’s standardized MAP test results from last spring compared to all other North Charleston Title I schools. At Brentwood, 80 percent of students scored in the top two quartiles, and only 6 percent in the bottom quartile. By comparison, only 36 percent of test results for students at other North Charleston Title I schools were in the top two quartiles, and fully 35 percent in the bottom quartile. Can you imagine? Top two quartiles means college or vocational school, good job, bright future … while bottom quartile means dropout or best case social promotion through school.

Those scores put Brentwood’s K-2nd grades in the 78-97th percentile out of approximately 15,000 schools that take the MAP test; and North Charleston in just the 13-25th percentile. Same kids, same neighborhood, same circumstances … radically different outcomes.

To be sure, in order to achieve these results it takes enormous change from the status quo of public education. But the next time someone says we can’t do better in educating our kids because of where they come from, get angry because it’s just not true. We can do so much better. We know because we are already doing it.


Benjamin Navarro is the founder of Meeting Street Schools and founder and CEO of Sherman Financial Group, a Charleston-based global investment company.