We Know Our Struggling Rural Schools Can Improve, Because Some Already Are

February 7, 2018

Richard Riley

In two of our state’s poorest counties, public schools are thriving. Graduation rates and student achievement are much better than they were just a few years ago. Students are excited about school and know precisely how their education applies to their future jobs, technical training and college studies.

Scott’s Branch High School in the small town of Summerton and Colleton County High School in Walterboro are earning national attention for their improvement. Both schools have achieved this significant accomplishment since joining the nonprofit New Tech Network. They are the focus of a new short documentary, A Turning Point in South Carolina, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which you can watch at turningpointsouthcarolina.com.

Scott’s Branch, where the Briggs v. Elliott court case led directly to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, had struggled with low student achievement for many decades. The entire district had been considered underperforming because of low test scores, low graduation rates and other challenges.

But in the past four years, Scott’s Branch has moved from underperforming to earning a “good” rating on its state report card. One innovative part of the New Tech design is that, for an entire year, the students worked together in each class to write their own history of their community’s important, yet unheralded, legacy in the civil rights movement.

At Colleton County High School, two career academies have adopted the New Tech model with rousing success. Cougar New Tech features entrepreneurship courses; the Health Careers Academy, which opened this year, focuses on health professions. In both academies, students frequently make presentations using technology in their classes and to the community.

These schools and others along Interstate 95 in eastern South Carolina were featured in the documentary Corridor of Shame, produced by civil rights advocate Bud Ferrillo. Many of these rural districts also were involved in a 20-year court battle for a more equitable share of state funding — a case that was won, although they still await greater help from the state.

The difference in these improving rural schools is that students now know why they’re learning what they’re learning — and why it matters in the world. In the nearly 200 rural, urban and suburban schools that partner with New Tech Network, district leaders, principals and classroom educators choose to overhaul and strengthen the culture of adult and student learning. The network continues to innovate and improve the model and its support for the communities implementing it.

New Tech schools represent tremendous progress in communities where schools have struggled over the years. They give hope to all of us who want better for our children in the rural South and across the country.

My visit to New Tech High School in Napa County, Calif., during the 2008-2009 academic year was the start of an important journey that eventually would have an impact on students in my home state and beyond.

That school, part of the New Tech Network, showed me a different approach, whereby teachers connect students with their learning in profound new ways. At the heart of the New Tech approach is project-based learning for all academic subjects.

I was so eager to see New Tech in South Carolina that I worked with a small consortium, which won a major federal competitive grant to bring the network into the two high-poverty, rural S.C. districts.

The New Tech Network now partners with 12 S.C. schools to help educators infuse project-based learning in classrooms, combine courses in creative new ways, use project-based learning much of the time, and push students to use technology and communications skills they’ll need for the future.

In Cayce, just across the river from Columbia, i2Tech@BCHS is a school within a school at Brookland-Cayce High School. It opened in 2014 and soon will graduate its first senior class. Thanks to this program, student achievement has improved, and many teachers at B-C have embraced project-based learning and greater collaboration with their peers.

South Carolina’s motto is Dum Spiro Spero, “while I breathe, I hope.” These schools offer hope to all of our children in the rural South and all across the country.

Mr. Riley is a Greenville attorney who served as S.C. governor and U.S. education secretary and now serves on the New Tech Network advisory board; contact him at dick.riley@nelsonmullins.com.

This special to the Editorial Board originally appeared on The State

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