Throughout the month of January, the Post and Courier is hosting a series of panel discussions inspired by Minimally Adequate, a published series of stories focused on the challenges facing South Carolina’s public school system. Bringing together educators and legislators from throughout the state, the events’ discussions will shine a light on the critical issues that reporters found during their eight-month investigation. The stories came from a team of five reporters, two of which opened up in a Q&A to share their thoughts on the series. Reporters Jennifer Berry-Hawes and Thad Moore explain Minimally Adequate and its impact on the state of South Carolina.
What is the main idea of the series and what are the focus points of each individual part?
Jennifer: South Carolina’s public schools persistently languish at the bottom of national education rankings due to a legacy of apathy toward public education and, particularly, toward the education of black students. This has left thousands of children ill-equipped to compete in the workforce or college. We decided to break down our series this way:
Part 1 provided an over-arching look at the state of our schools.
Part 2 examined the history of segregation, racism and apathy toward public schools.
Part 3 studied reasons why SC student are too often unprepared for a changing workforce.
Part 4 held legislators accountable for failing to reform the state’s public schools.
Part 5 provided possible solutions to these problems.
How extensive was the process of reporting on this issue throughout the state?
Thad: Our team spent months studying education and interviewing hundreds of educators, parents, students, business leaders and lawmakers. We traveled around the state, from Allendale to Greenville, to see what was causing some schools to fall behind and others to produce promising results.
What is the direct goal and how are the stories helping to achieve that?
Jennifer: Our goal was to jump start a long-overdue conversation that would lead to changes that address the state’s education huge disparities and better provide a quality education for all students. This presented an enormous challenge given the Legislature had failed to do so for reasons that remained hurdles. To emphasize the need for change, we decided to present a series of stories that dove deeply into several key problems so that people could see the enormity of what we face laid out all in one place.
The stories already have gotten considerable attention across the state. Every day, the reporters who worked on this series hear from people (including legislators) who have read it, were outraged or ashamed, and promise to do more to address the problem. Already, we have seen bills pre-filed in the House and Senate that address some of the issues we raised. The Speaker of the House promised the chamber he would make education the key issues this session and received a standing ovation when he said so.
Of everything discussed in the series, can you highlight the biggest issue?
Thad: So much about education is complicated, and there are a thousand places you could begin to make changes. In some ways, I think that’s partly why we’ve seen the state take so many small efforts at improving schools, like starting new programs or finding money for specific needs. But the theme that has come up again and again is that the state really needs a comprehensive plan that addresses all aspects of education, from funding to teacher recruitment to facilities. There’s no one silver bullet, but when we’ve done better in the past, a combination of initiatives — lots of little silver bullets — seemed to work.
What aspect of the series do you personally connect with most?
Thad: How drastic the divides are in South Carolina. We have some of the best schools in the country here, and many of the worst. And those disparities exist just down the road from each other.
Jennifer: I most connected with covering the state’s shameful history of apathy, hostility even, toward educating black children. As a parent, it is devastating to think that generations of children were not able to reach their potential simply because of their race. It also shocked me to realize that more than half of SC’s school districts didn’t desegregate until 1970. That is not so long ago, and we are perpetuating schools segregated by race and income in many ways even today.
What can businesses do to help further the goal of improving education?
There’s a good deal of awareness that businesses today are having a hard time finding qualified workers, but that’s usually talked about as an issue for universities and technical colleges to address. Establishing the link between K-12 education and the economy is an important first step. Business leaders could certainly be more direct in making that connection, and they could better communicate to educators and policymakers what their needs are and where improvement in K-12 education could help.
What was your main takeaway from Inside Business Live and speaking directly on the topic?
I was encouraged by the energy in the room and the clear interest of the participants in improving our public schools. This topic obviously has weighed on many people for years but not jelled into cohesive effort to push for systemic changes. Until now. I felt that changing in the room during this panel. People were energized to do something.
How is the series continuing to reach an audience?
We are taking the Inside Business LIVE format and extending it to hold four public events around the state (in Charleston, Columbia, Greenville and Florence) that will keep the conversation going as the Legislature returns to session. These events will be called “Minimally Adequate: Fix South Carolina Schools” and will focus on solutions moving forward.