Richland 1’s elite elementary school is also its whitest and least impoverished

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Like all parents, Sara McBride just wanted her son to get the best possible education.

That’s why she tried to get her son into Richland 1’s highest-ranked school: Brockman Elementary. A school where class sizes are small and teachers’ advanced degrees and experience nets them a higher average salary.

Brockman is the district’s only school that exclusively uses the Montessori teaching method, a popular style of education where children learn at their own pace, learn through play and, to a certain extent, choose how they learn certain lessons, according to the American Montessori Society.

Any student zoned for Brennen, Satchel Ford or Bradley is eligible for enrollment at Brockman if the parents attend a mandatory information session and submit an application. Those applications are entered into a computer program, and the program picks students randomly, according to Richland 1’s Choice Programs Guide.

Being a full-Montessori model isn’t the only thing that makes Brockman stick out from other schools in the district. Brockman is also the whitest and least impoverished school in Richland 1, according to S.C. Department of Education data.

“Poor parents and parents of color love their children and want them to succeed,” McBride said. “They want the best education for their children but somehow those kids are disproportionately not going to Brockman, which is locally well known as a great school.”

While two of the three schools that feed Brockman are already top-ranked Satchel Ford (63 percent white) and Brennen (50 percent white), Brockman is 75 percent white, according to S.C. Department of Education statistics.

At Bradley, where seven out of eight students are black, 92 percent of the students are in foster care, homeless, transient or have been eligible for Medicaid or food stamps in the last three years. At Brockman, that percentage is 24, department data shows.

To focus on the demographics of a school like Brockman, which has 320 students, misses a larger point, argues Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. Not only has the district opened new programs — such as Montessori schools within schools — but the curriculum in the classroom is evolving.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand opportunities for students and parents, whether it’s Montessori, whether it’s language immersion, whether it’s STEM and STEAM, whether it’s the other academies that we have… our wheels are always spinning.”

One recent example of this is the budding Commercial Driver’s License program at Eau Claire High School, which allows high school students to get a jump-start on a field where pay is good and jobs are available, according to a previous article from The State. Eau Claire is 92 percent black, according to S.C. Department of Education statistics.

So why is Brockman wealthier and whiter than the schools that feed it?

In a district that’s 70 percent African American, Brockman is the most pronounced example of a phenomenon where the district’s coveted choice programs are whiter than the schools that feed them. And as Richland 1 continues to expand choice programs, these statistics raise questions about whether they will benefit all students equally.

The reason isn’t that low-income and black families aren’t aware of them, said Richland 1 School Board Member Lila Anna Sauls. It’s because many low-income families — who may be single parents or working long hours — worry they could not provide the necessary support needed for a Montessori education, which encourages high levels of parental involvement, Sauls said.

At Homeless No More’s shelter, where Sauls is CEO, she often encourages families zoned for Bradley to apply for Brockman, she said.

“They would say no,” Sauls said.

“I don’t think it’s flyers and robocalls. I think it’s educating parents on what Montessori is,” Sauls said.

But even when parents understood the Montessori method, some were still hesitant to sign up their children.

“It was fear of the unknown,” Sauls said.

Another possible reason is that some families become attached to a particular school and send generations of children there, said Eunice Williams, Richland 1’s executive director of schools.

Most of Richland 1’s other 16 choice schools — publicly funded schools that focus on a particular area such as Montessori, teaching Chinese or magnet schools to prepare students to enter the medical field — are housed within a larger school. For example, Caughman Road Elementary contains a Montessori program within the larger, conventional school. The State requested through the Freedom of Information Act demographic information for incoming classes at all of the “school-within-a-school” programs. Of the seven schools for which the district provided data, five of those programs had a whiter population than the school overall, data show.

In the Richland 2 school district, choice schools have higher minority enrollment than schools overall. However, it’s hard to directly compare the two school districts. With 34 magnet schools, Richland 2 has a more robust choice school program and features different types of schools.

School districts throughout the country are experiencing problems with decreased diversity across the board, according to a May 2019 report from the University of California at Los Angeles. There, researchers found the number of schools with 90 to 100 percent non-white students has increased from roughly 6 percent in 1988 to around 18 percent in 2016, the report said. While choice and magnet schools can be beneficial to school integration, there has to be a plan, the report said.

“School choice plans without equity policies and strategies often end up with the best-educated and connected families getting the best choices, actually increasing inequality,” the report said. “All school choice programs need voluntary goals, policies, and practices that foster diversity and integration.”

Richland 1 is aware that Brockman’s demographics skew whiter and richer than the schools that feed it, and it’s something the district has been trying to fix by expanding Montessori schools throughout the district, Sauls said.

Brockman was opened in 2000 to alleviate overcrowding at Satchel Ford and Brennen, district spokeswoman Karen York said in an email. Today, all Richland 1 parents can apply to send their children to a Montessori school in their areas.

“The district believed in the Montessori model so much they expanded it,” Sauls said.

Superintendent Witherspoon said the district expects to continue this trend of expanding choice or Montessori schools.

“We are considering in future years, perhaps even more expansion at the elementary level and possibly even the high school level,” Witherspoon said.

Teacher pay, student-teacher ratios

Average annual teacher pay by elementary school:

  • Bradley: $50,361
  • Brennen: $52,551
  • Brockman: $59,346
  • Satchel Ford: $50,942

Student to teacher ratio by elementary school (rounded to the nearest whole number):

  • Bradley: 20:1
  • Brennen: 20:1
  • Brockman: 14:1
  • Satchel Ford: 22:1

Source: S.C. Department of Education statistics.