OPINION: Is this the way to transform struggling rural schools?

May 24, 2018
The Hechinger Report

By Richard Riley

While serving as U.S. Secretary of Education in the 1990s and early 2000s, and previously as Governor of South Carolina for eight years, I saw the devastating impact of under-funded and under-resourced rural schools, especially in high-poverty communities.

Unfortunately, at least for some children in the South, those conditions haven’t changed much.

That’s one of the reasons a different approach to teaching and learning caught my attention several years ago. My visit to New Tech High School in Napa County, California, during the 2008-09 academic year was the start of an important journey for me that eventually would have an impact on students in my home state and beyond.

A member of the nonprofit New Tech Network, the school showed me a different approach in classrooms, whereby teachers connected students with their learning in profound new ways. At the heart of the approach: project-based learning for all academic subjects. The biggest difference was that many students knew why they were learning what they were learning — and why it mattered in the world.

I was so impressed that I was eager to see New Tech’s approach come to South Carolina. Fortunately, through a small consortium that included the Riley Institute at Furman University, a federal grant brought the New Tech concept into two high-poverty, rural South Carolina schools.

Five years later, these two small-town schools are thriving. Scott’s Branch High School in Summerton and Colleton County High School in Walterboro are reaching new heights.

These schools and others along Interstate 95 in South Carolina became notorious when they were featured in the documentary film Corridor of Shame. At Scott’s Branch, a historic school where the Briggs v. Elliott court case was focused, leading directly to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, students recently collaborated on a year-long project to write their own history of the community’s important legacy in the Civil Rights movement. The school had struggled with low student achievement for decades. The entire school district was under “school improvement” status because of low test scores and low graduation rates, among other challenges.

But in the past four years, Scott’s Branch has moved from “school improvement” status to earning a rating of “good” on its state report card.

At Colleton County High School, two of the school’s career academies have adopted the New Tech model, with rousing success. One of the academies, Cougar New Tech, features entrepreneurship courses that students pursue; a second academy, the Health Careers Academy that opened this year, focuses on health professions. In both academies, students frequently make presentations to the community using technology.

Students in these schools are excited about learning and how it will apply to their future jobs, technical training and college studies. Both schools are featured in the new short documentary A Turning Point in South Carolina, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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