‘I’m scared to go back’: Beaufort Co Schools to reconsider closure of Islands Academy

Islands Academy gives students an opportunity to succeed, school administrators say

Here's a look at what administrators say Islands Academy offers students that's a little different from the rest of the schools in the Beaufort County School District.
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Here's a look at what administrators say Islands Academy offers students that's a little different from the rest of the schools in the Beaufort County School District.

As a seventh grade student at Whale Branch Middle School, Keyvon Thomas had trouble making friends, connecting with his teachers and staying focused in class.

But at the district’s alternative choice school, Islands Academy, Keyvon finally felt like he was respected by his peers, admired by his teachers and finally a part of a family.

After district administrators recently decided to close the school because of its alarmingly low student performance, Keyvon, 15, has been grappling with how he will adjust to starting at a new high school mid-year.

“All I can say is I’m scared to go back,” he said Tuesday. “A lot of those kids (at Whale Branch Early College High School) are more mature than me. I feel like it brought me down and made me feel stupid.”

At the request of the Beaufort County Board of Education Tuesday night, interim superintendent Herb Berg will reconsider closing the school and announce his final decision by the end of the week, according to district spokesperson Jim Foster.

But based on Berg’s remarks at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, it appeared unlikely that he would change his mind.

“As your superintendent, I felt like I could not allow these kids to go on for another semester like this — to give them another semester of lost learning — while I’m in charge of their education,” Berg said.

Islands Academy, which was opened as Right Choice School under former superintendent Jeff Moss as the only free-standing alternative school in the state, was identified as a failing school by the South Carolina Department of Education earlier this month.

The potential closure will affect about 70 sixth to 12th grade students who applied to attend because they were struggling either academically or socially at their original school, including Keyvon, who struggles with learning disabilities and was placed at the school after failing seventh grade.

Those school’s students typically came from the “neediest 3% of Beaufort County” and “required the greatest academic and behavioral interventions,” according to a 2017 district presentation.

Under state law, each school district must offer an alternative program for students with behavioral or academic issues that may interfere with the learning of others.

Islands Academy, however, is distinct from the district’s alternative program, Right Choices.

Right Choices is a temporary assignment as an alternative to expulsion for students who have typically violated the district’s student code of conduct.

Although both Islands Academy and Right Choices operate out of the district’s main office in Beaufort, Right Choices will remain open.

An undisclosed warning

Although last week’s announcement about the school closure was made abruptly, issues at the school have been festering for years, administrators said Tuesday.

Former superintendent Jeff Moss and school board chairman Earl Campbell knew about problems at Islands Academy for at least a year without making any concerted effort to improve the outcome for students, according to documents released Tuesday.

Islands Academy was first identified as a “potentially underperforming school” by the S.C. Department of Education in December 2017 because of its low graduation rate and test scores at that time, according to a letter sent to the district.

In January, Moss, Campbell, Islands Academy Principal Susan Guillen and State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman signed a memorandum of agreement that outlined the district’s and board’s responsibilities for monitoring the school’s improvements.

The memo, which came at a time of much contention among Moss and board members, was never disclosed to any of the other board members.

“We would have had a year to possibly turn this thing in the right direction,” said board member JoAnn Orischak. “But not knowing about it, we had no opportunity to oversee the suggested interventions and procedures.”

Around the time of the memo, the board began discussing a possible separation agreement with Moss.

They hired a facilitator to help improve relationships with each other but they later abandoned the idea when some members of the board said they wouldn’t participate.

And during that same few weeks, they were informed that district employees had been served two federal subpoenas in an FBI investigation related to the construction of two Bluffton schools.

When asked about the memo Tuesday night, Campbell told the board that he had assumed administrators would come back to the board and inform them of their plans for the school.

“But that never happened,” Campbell said. “And during that time, we were discussing the issues with Dr. Moss and I forgot about it, and I’m sorry.”

‘Not the right thing to do’

At a special-called school board meeting Tuesday night, district administrators explained their decision to close Islands Academy abruptly without any consultation with the board.

Administrators previously said they were closing the school as a result of the S.C. Department of Education designating it among 43 failing schools in the state due to its 29 percent graduation rate.

Last month, when the S.C. Department of Education released school report cards for every S.C. public school for first time in four years, Islands Academy was also ranked the worst middle school in the state and among the ten worst high schools in the state.

The district’s presentation Tuesday night further revealed that not only were the Islands Academy students not improving on their standardized tests and other academic measures, some were actually falling further behind once they transferred to the school.

Because some of the school’s students were bused all the way from Hilton Head to Beaufort each day, the Islands Academy school day only lasted about five and a half hours and high school students were failing to receive their 120 hours of seat time, as required by state law.

“The reason that I decided that it needed to be closed now and immediately is that to continue this on for another semester would mean that 68 kids would go backwards in their learning,” Berg said Tuesday. “That is not the right thing to do.”

But some board members said Tuesday that they weren’t very interested in the school’s academic data.

Instead, they wanted answers as to why the district would close the school without first trying to fix the school’s problems. 

“We can address the seat time that the kids have ... We can have those plans made and developed, and the state is offering to help do that, so I don’t understand why we would not try it,” board member Mary Cordray said during the meeting.

Because Islands Academy was identified as one of the state’s failing schools, the state would give the school federal and state funding, a transformation coach and other opportunities to try and improve the school’s success.

Berg told the board that all of that would eventually lead to the state taking over the school unless the school makes major improvements quickly.

“... And where you are, the prospects of ever coming out of that are bleak at least,” Berg said.

If the school is closed, students will be dispersed back to their zoned schools for the start of the second semester, with the biggest group of 16 students going back to Beaufort High School.

In the meantime, administrators and counselors are working with each student individually to come up with transition plans.

An informational meeting for Islands Academy parents is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria at the Academy of Career Excellence.

Maggie Angst covers education for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. In 2017, Maggie was named the Media Person of the Year by the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicago area.