By Deborah Swearingen
GREENVILLE – On an afternoon in late March, the aroma of baby-back ribs, sushi and pesto chicken flatbread pizza wafted through the district office of Greenville County Schools. Students were piling food on their plates, tasting as many options as possible before topping off with whole-grain chocolate chip cookies.
Scorecards were passed around, and council members got down to business. What tasted best? What price point could students afford? The decisions may have been tough, with winners not yet known, but the sauce-covered ribs and vegetable-filled sushi represented just one of the choices the students had to make throughout the meeting.
The Inter-High Council is a gathering of student body and upper-class presidents from all 14 high schools in Greenville, established to provide a voice for the public district’s students – and not just in matters of the stomach.
The council members offer advice to district officials, principals and even one another.
In just one of the monthly meetings, the group analyzed bomb threat deterrents, school lunch menus, teacher hiring practices and civic activism.
“I personally think the feedback is great,” said Charles Mayfield, principal of J.L. Mann High School.
The students’ responses on what makes a great teacher were “golden,” he said. He asked for their thoughts to be recorded for use when hiring.
Pam Mills, district coordinator of government relations and Inter-High liaison agreed, saying school districts that are student-centered are the most successful.
“You can’t be student-centered if you don’t know what it is that the students want,” Mills said.
A symbol of equal opportunity
Symbolically, Greenville’s Inter-High Council represents a smaller-scale model of the larger goal that South Carolina is working toward – a system of education that provides equitable opportunities regardless of geography and economic status.
It’s a vision of equality that Gov. Nikki Haley articulated in her second inaugural address in January:
“My dreams for South Carolina know no bounds. They are as expansive as my love for this state and for the people who call it home.
In the South Carolina I dream of, a daughter of Dillon starts each day with the same hope and possibility as a son of Greenville.”
Much as state lawmakers are searching for ways to provide equitable funding for South Carolina school districts, the council of Greenville students come together monthly to share ideas about education.
“We bring Inter-High together so that everybody can see that we’re diverse but our goals are the same – kind of like the state,” Mills said.
The goal of equality in educational opportunity has remained elusive in South Carolina, and a 22-year-old lawsuit bears witness to that unmet goal.
In 1993, 39 school districts, largely rural and poor, sued the state for failing to provide adequate school funding. The districts contended that the state’s funding formulas, originally based on a district’s property tax base, placed them further and further behind in providing an education that compares to that provided in more affluent districts.
Finally, the S.C. Supreme Court sided with the impoverished districts in a 3-2 decision last November. The court ordered the legislature to find an equitable way to fund education.
The Haley administration unsuccessfully asked for a re-hearing but the legislature has yet to act on the Supreme Court ruling.
What makes Greenville great (as told by Inter-High students)
With an array of magnet programs, specialty schools and technology to choose from, Greenville County students and their schools are among the best in the state.
And when students travel outside its borders, they realize just how lucky they are.
Carey Turner, a senior at J.L. Mann High School, said that attending Palmetto Girls State over the summer was a culture shock.
“You don’t realize how different and diverse South Carolina actually is,” Turner said.
When talking with a group of girls at the weeklong leadership training program, she mentioned that her school has only two carts of iPads for its 1,726 students. She quickly found out that other schools across the state are using textbooks that are more than two decades old.
Turner and classmate Greg Stoffelen, who attended Palmetto Boys State, said they realized that going to school in Greenville is nothing like going to school in some of the state’s poorer districts.
Mason Gilpin, another J.L. Mann senior, said that the school’s class offerings are a huge draw.
“We have so many options for what classes to take,” Gilpin said, adding that smaller schools simply don’t have enough students for a variety of classes.
J.L. Mann offers a forensics class that counts as a lab credit, he said, and it is a course loved by many students.
Jenna McCombs, a senior at Blue Ridge High School, said what she loves best about her school is the caring nature of the guidance counselors and principal.
“I’ve been into other high schools, and they won’t even know their principal,” she said. “I know my principal, and I know that I can always walk into her office.”
Is bigger better?
Greenville’s Inter-High Council represents 14 very different high schools in the state’s biggest district, ranging from Riverside with 1,596 students and 19 percent on free and reduced lunch to Carolina High School and Academy with 677 students and 85 percent on free and reduced lunch.
Across the district, schools specialize in different subject areas to provide students with options. For example, Greenville Senior High is considered a school of law, business and finance, and J.L. Mann is a school of mathematics, science and technology.
“One of the reasons we’re able to do all of this is because we’re so large,” Mills said. “If you have 14 high schools, you can offer different things at different high schools, and people can find something that they like.”
Melanie Barton, executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee, a nonpartisan group that advises the legislature on education financing and other issues, agreed with Mills.
She said that Greenville’s superintendent has done a terrific job of ingraining what the community needs into the entire curriculum.
The district emphasizes engineering, which Barton said is smart with companies like BMW and Michelin so prominent in the Greenville area.
The companies brought prosperity to the county and have been drivers for education.
Superintendent Burke Royster partially credits these businesses to the district’s hiring success compared to rural counties such as Dillon, Jasper and Allendale, which he said often have trouble attracting new teachers.
“Our county as a whole is very economically healthy,” Royster said. “There are plenty of jobs.”
Greenville’s economic success distinguishes it from communities along Interstate 95, which became known as the “Corridor of Shame” after a 2005 documentary documented the limited resources of poor school districts with modest tax bases.
In South Carolina, state public school funding is partially determined by money collected from local business property taxes, a change under South Carolina’s Act 388 that exempted owner-occupied housing from being taxed for education.
For small, rural school districts, the change in the tax structure worsened an already untenable financing problem.
A template for equitable funding?
Greenville County is the first district in the state to use the Inter-High Council model, as far as Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, knows.
But she said councils like Inter-High can be quite beneficial.
“It can help us to incorporate a culture of cooperation,” Hampton said.
She said cooperation is much better than competition in local districts, as it helps establish a more understanding and bigger-picture approach to improving education across the state.
In a school, everyone has an opinion, said Eric Williams, principal of Wade Hampton High School.
But he said Greenville’s Inter-High students have a special opportunity to act as a singular voice for their respective schools.
“You have all been selected by your peers to be in a position like this,” he told the group at their March meeting. “Now you have an open voice and opportunity to provide feedback.”
Trey Walk, a senior at Mauldin High School, said he likes being able to come to Inter-High meetings and expand his vision of what he sees every day at his own school.
“The council is really representative of all the students in Greenville County,” Walk said. “It’s really cool to come here and have 30 students that really represent the voices of the county.”
Joining Walk at a table was Megan Carter, a Southside senior, who said she loves learning about other schools through Inter-High.
“You get everybody from different schools, and you get to learn about different cultures at each school,” Carter said.
Inter-High gives students ownership of their own district, Mills said, and students realize that they can make tangible changes in how things are done.
The council approach could be considered by the state, as well, said Melanie Barton.
As South Carolina searches for solutions that will help each district share equally in the buffet of educational opportunity, this form of cooperation and discussion could be key.
When districts focus only on bettering themselves, the disparity grows, she said.
She said some superintendents in highly ranked districts have talked about partnering with lower-ranking districts to share ideas.
“We all kind of live in our silos,” she said. “I think that would help break down those walls.”