Activists defend historic Black school after arrest of alum

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) – A group of community activists met on Thursday to draw positive attention to Burke High School and to show support for the school as an institution after one of its alumni was arrested in connection with a mass shooting on May 30.

Deljavon Lamat Simmons, 31, was charged with five counts of attempted murder and one count of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime earlier this month.

He was a standout football player from Burke who made headlines when he played in 2010.

“They categorize Burke as a troubled school based upon a gentleman who graduated from Burke 12 years ago, Kevin Hollinshead, a former Charleston County School Board member, said. “It has nothing to do with Burke. That paraphrases it in a negative light.”

Hollinshead, who had children graduate from the school, says district leadership has allowed the school to be neglected to the point where the high school has developed a negative reputation that parents want to avoid. He says the negative media coverage hasn’t helped either.

In last year’s annual report, the constituent district 20 board of trustees made a presentation to the school board begging the administration to action to stop the hemorrhaging of enrollment.

“Residents with school-age children move away from the peninsula due to their poorly performing schools with fewer amenities, fewer extracurriculars, lower expectations for student achievements, and fewer educational opportunities than are offered in schools over the bridge,” the report reads. “Our live-in count is too small to support our middle and high school in offering robust academic and extracurricular programs.”

Data collected by the South Carolina Department of Education shows Burke High School has lost 35 percent of the enrollment it had 10 years ago. In the 2012-2013 school year, enrollment was at 506 students. In 2021-2022 enrollment topped 329.

Despite the perception, the Charleston County School District has made Burke a focal point in its efforts to address struggling schools. In 2019, Burke was placed on a list with 15 other low-performing schools dubbed “acceleration schools” and targeted for a multi-year turnaround effort.

So far the effort has not yielded the intended results, but administrators argue there should be a noticeable increase in test scores next year.

State testing data shows just 13 percent of Burke graduates are prepared for college, as opposed to 32 percent of students at West Ashley High School.

The school was built in 1910 and is the oldest African American high school still in operation as a high school in the state. At one point, it had nearly 2,000 students, and its students have played a role in the state’s civil rights movement.

Hollinshead says a building with a history like that deserves better.

“You have famous alumni – the young lady in the Olympics (Raven Saunders), the young lady who got inducted into the hall of fame at the state (Marvin LJ Blye), you have Clay Middleton and other great folks that graduated from that institution ,” Hollinshead said.

Hollinshead says gentrification is a major cause for the drop in attendance numbers but said there is a plan for Burke that he hopes will reverse the negative trends. However, he would not elaborate on what the plans are just yet.

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