Johns Island, S.C. — Amongst the moss-draped live oaks of Charleston Collegiate School’s 33-acre campus — where children of all ethnicities, religions, and abilities work and play together — the words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright seem alien and hostile.
His sometimes hate-filled rhetoric is weirdly out of sync with this quiet corner of the Old South, where ancestors of the school’s African-American students worked as slaves, perhaps upon these very fields.
The differences between this microcosm of a near-utopian community and the world that informs Wright are as stark as the philosophies of the Chicago preacher and Charleston Collegiate headmaster Bob Shirley.
Both men are radicals, but their approaches to racial harmony can’t be confused.
At 72, Shirley is supposed to be retired, following a long career as an educator, headmaster, museum director, and Marine. But the world has need of its Bob Shirleys and so he was easily pressed back into service in 2005 — after a three-week retirement — when this little school needed a new leader.
I happened to be visiting the nondenominational K-12 school, where my sister-in-law teaches, as Wright’s rants were stuck on continuous replay and couldn’t help comparing these very different men and their approaches to achieving a more racially balanced world.
Which works best? Inflaming old hatreds and feeding paranoia among the next generation? Or teaching children that what they have in common is greater than their differences?
The answer is obvious, but some people — both black and white — are deeply invested in preserving rather than healing wounds.
“You can either pass on a heritage of the world already made,” says Shirley. “Or, you can make people who change the world of the future.”
Smiling is Shirley’s default mode and a blithe spirit buoys his conviction that all children, properly guided, can become masters of their own destiny. His commitment to that goal flowers at the end of each student’s senior year with an “Exhibition of Mastery” project that requires independent study and an oral and written presentation before an advisory committee and an audience.
Charleston Collegiate offers an exclusive education, in other words, but Shirley is strictly anti-exclusivity. The school’s 285 students include the largest minority enrollment of any private school in the Charleston area at 24 percent, as well as the largest percentage of financial-aid students (25 percent).
The faculty, 75 percent of whom hold a master’s degree (two have doctorates), also exceeds other private schools in minority representation at 19 percent.
Shirley has passed the career point where he worries what others will think. He is blunt when he describes how most southern private schools organize their priorities: “The typical southern day school has high tuition, good athletics, a modicum of education and a small financial-aid budget.”
Yearly tuition at Charleston Collegiate runs about $10,000 — slightly more than the amount allocated per student in America’s public schools. The school boasts a strong athletic program, in which 90 percent of students participate, but the arts are equally important. One hundred percent of students in the lower and middle schools — and 80 percent of upper-school students — participate in the visual and performing arts.
Oh, and 100 percent go to college. SAT scores average 1,100, but school officials point out that English is a second language for many students. First languages include Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, and Chinese.
Clearly, not everyone can attend a private school — and fewer can find one like Charleston Collegiate that has a seven-to-one student-faculty ratio — but parents don’t have to settle for less in public schools, says Shirley. In fact, he adds, the presence of good private schools tends to improve the quality of neighboring public schools.
Another value of private schools is that they can experiment and innovate. Whereas public schools are limited by bureaucratic principles of efficiency and held hostage to quantifiable outcomes, Charleston Collegiate emphasizes critical-thinking skills.
As any school, this one aches for money, but look what Shirley & Co. have managed without much. Charleston Collegiate’s entire endowment is just $3,437. Three other area private schools have endowments ranging in the millions.
It’s not how much money you have, apparently, but how you spend it. And it’s not only what you teach, but how you teach it — with affection and high expectations.
The Rev. Wright would love this school, if racial harmony is, indeed, what he prays for. Perhaps Shirley can invite him down for a visit.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group