“Enter at your own risk!”

That’s the banner one educator would hang outside of our failing schools.

I usually answer a question in “Teacher to Parent,” but this week I want to highlight a particular teacher and parent whose ideas about improving schools are worth listening to.

His name is Marvin Stewart, branch manager of the Mount Pleasant Village Library and he has a rich history in education. He graduated from Burke High School before earning degrees from Barber-Scotia College and the University of South Carolina. He taught English and Journalism for 10 years at Baptist Hill High School before becoming a librarian.

I first met Mr. Stewart when I worked for him at the library in college. A few years later, he served on the downtown Charleston constituent school board where he fought for the rights of all students to receive a quality education. For Stewart, that battle started in his own car.

“I was driving my daughter to the first day of her junior year of high school,” he remembers, “and she told me, ‘Dad, I don’t want to go to that school anymore’” because she wasn’t learning anything.

He knew it was true. He had seen the minimal homework and the high grades for little work, but hearing her say it out loud suddenly made it real.

“I turned the car around and I went to the Academic Magnet High School.” He lobbied for the school to enroll his daughter and she graduated two years later. She now holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from Louisiana-Tech University and a medical degree from MUSC. She is currently a college professor. “Had she stayed at the failing high school,” Stewart says, “none of this would have come to fruition.”

While he was glad that his daughter could now receive a strong education, a thought still haunted him. “Marvin,” he said to himself, “you tried to save your daughter, but what about the others that are left behind?”

That thought inspired him to run for the downtown constituent board where he served for 12 years. The constituent board had no power to change what was happening inside the schools, but it did have one power used liberally by Stewart: the ability to approve student transfers. He transferred over a thousand children out of downtown schools without reading a single application: “I knew the horrible conditions those children were under and they would have a better chance somewhere else.”

Stewart calls it “criminal activity” for school officials to allow students “to enter failing schools year after year, knowing that these kids have slim to no chance of receiving a quality education and becoming productive members of society… You know these kids are not learning, yet you allow them to matriculate through the system with social promotion year after year.”

Stewart believes changing this culture of failure comes down to three things.

One element is discipline. During his tenure, he would receive first-time expulsion recommendations for students with 25 to 30 infractions. “I thought I was in general sessions court,” he says.

When he was teaching, a class might have one or two misbehaving students; “Now it’s 60 to 70% of the class.” He once visited a classroom which was so out of control that the teacher never even got to call the roll. “You cannot have disruptive students in classes and create a good learning environment.”

The second problem is the one that most affected his daughter: low expectations. Stewart says schools should “give every child a challenging curriculum. We’ve dummied down the education of the kids. We are now teaching to their level rather than at the level they should be. Therefore the kids who are on grade level are frustrated.”

The final factor is parents. Stewart’s own parents had limited resources, “but the one thing they gave all three of their children was the value of an education.” He believes that value is missing today, especially within low income families. “That’s why those children don’t have a library card… don’t do their homework… don’t know where their books are… because the parents have not bought in.”

The parent problem is so significant, Stewart says, that it may require a shift in perspective: “We focus on saving the children, but actually we need programs to save the parents.” He says districts should deploy adult peer counselors in low-performing schools to bring the message to parents that education is vital.

Though these problems will require much time and attention, Stewart says we can’t delay in getting to work. When he was on the board, he never read a single 5-year plan, “because my theory was the student has to be educated today. The kid is in school right now.”

Charleston missed out when Stewart ran for the more powerful county school board and lost. I’ve encouraged him to run again, but he believes the odds may be too great to overcome. That is sad, because our kids need his message now more than ever.

While the picture is bleak, Stewart says, “There is still yet hope.” But that hope, he cautions, is contingent on everyone doing what’s right. The worst thing any of us, especially parents, can do is to stop searching for the answers.

“Parents should not just get back in the car and drive off.”

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent.