Beaufort County’s school board has a big problem.
Maybe I just accidentally backed into the solution.
Make them enroll at Red Cedar Elementary School in Bluffton.
The school board’s behavior is an embarrassment.
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Chairman Earl Campbell recently said its critics (that is, anyone who dares to ask a question) would be going to hell.
Board members insult each other in public meetings and in emails that seem to circulate nonstop.
It’s so bad that a parent ripped into them at a meeting earlier this year:
“Every meeting you argue about nothing. If y’all don’t want to be here, don’t be here. Don’t be rude to people. Don’t say things that aren’t nice. Stop cutting him off,” she said, gesturing toward a board member who had been insulted by a fellow member. “That’s not nice. I don’t know why he won’t tell you that. Stop doing that. That’s a grown man.
“Y’all need to figure out what your problem is and get over it.”
Well, last week, I had occasion to visit fifth-graders at Red Cedar Elementary off the Bluffton Parkway.
I had volunteered for a tricky assignment. Teacher Linley Frieden asked if I’d come talk to her fifth-graders about what makes a good editorial.
On the way out the door that morning, my wife, who taught school for 31 years, said, “You better hope it’s a gifted class. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”
But let me tell you what I saw on this random, short visit to one of our schools.
The students were studying quietly when I got there. Then, all the fifth-grade classes walked single-file, silently to the end of the hall where there was room for everyone to sit on the floor and listen to an old man talk about old-school journalism. This was a hard assignment for them as well.
The students were polite. They listened. They stayed awake. They asked good questions when it was appropriate to do that.
They were neatly dressed, wearing uniforms that mostly matched the school mascot, Foxy the red fox.
They did not interrupt me. They did not insult me. They did not roll their eyes. They did not poke each other, whisper or kick. Their orderliness reflected a sense of purpose.
They were obviously used to behaving well. They were expected to behave well. I saw it in other classrooms and other hallways in the two-story building that opened in a boomtown in 2009.
In short, I was treated with respect, as were their teachers and fellow students. And I could tell that respect was not new to them.
Principal Kathy Corley told me later that every quarter they have a Respect Assembly in which students are awarded medallions for various achievements. RESPECT is an acronym for student goals. It stands for: responsibility, empathy, self-discipline, being positive, effort, cooperation and trustworthiness.
How many medallions have our school board members earned?
And for all you people who love to say our schools are 49th in everything, take a moment to visit our schools.
Red Cedar captured the state’s top honor in 2015 when it won the Palmetto’s Finest Award. Nearby Okatie Elementary School, Hilton Head Island High School, Beaufort Middle School and the now-closed Shell Point Elementary School also have earned that designation in Beaufort County.
Red Cedar is a majority “minority” school. English is the second language for 51 percent of its 675 students. Thirty-five percent are white, and 14 percent are African American. It is a Title I school, meaning it has a high percentage of students from low-income families. Sixty percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. About 30 of them are considered homeless. Many of their parents are working two or three jobs.
Red Cedar reflects challenges the entire district faces: a growth since 2007 of 85 percent in students whose native language is not English. In that time, the district has seen an increase of 12 percentage points in students eligible for free or reduced-price meals (up to 61 percent). Between 2012 and 2016, the number of homeless students increased from 98 to 275.
Yet, in my short visit, I saw high standards of behavior and respect. I saw a consistency of expectations.
I saw in fifth-graders what our school board lacks.