Transforming South Carolina's School Districts through Deeper Learning
By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation
**This spotlight originally appeared in the 2017 Annual Report.
Teachers and school leaders working with New Tech Network use evidence-based instructional methods to engage and empower learners across three South Carolina school districts.
The severe inequity of public schools in rural South Carolina along the I-95 corridor gained national attention in 2005 through the documentary Corridor of Shame. With some of the poorest counties in the country, this region has not had a sustainable local industry since the collapse of plantation agriculture. The crumbling schools and lack of support for both teachers and students shown in the film reflects decades of neglect stemming from historical inequities in this majority low-income, African American region. Because of the lack of resources, most students do not receive the education they need to succeed in college and career.
Jerolyn Murray, an instructional coach at Health Career Academy in the Colleton County School District, is among the many educators and leaders in South Carolina working to change this story for her community's young people. After years in the corporate sector, Murray left and returned home to the rural South Carolina region, where she began her career in education. When she first started, Murray was dismayed by how so little had improved since she was a student.
"I couldn't believe that what I experienced as a student was still the norm," she says. "I thought to myself, 'There has to be a better way to reach these kids.'"
Murray's efforts to transform the flawed system are guided and supported by New Tech Network (NTN), a leading deeper learning design partner for school transformation. NTN supports district leaders, principals, and classroom educators through training and coaching to implement deeper learning instructional practices. This model engages students in complex, authentic, project-based learning and requires them to demonstrate not only mastery of content knowledge but also communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving skills. There are currently 190 NTN schools across the country and the network-wide outcomes are impressive: the high school graduation rate is 92 percent, the growth in critical thinking skills is 52 percent and persistence through the second year in college is 82 percent.
This year, NTN received a $2.5 million grant from ECMC Foundation to create the South Carolina Learning Network, a joint initiative with the Colleton County, Charleston County and Florence County school districts. The three-year investment provides customized school support, instructional coach development, and district support with the goal of spreading and deepening the NTN school model and practices systemwide. Six new NTN schools (including the recently opened Health Career Academy) will be launched across the districts in the next three years, while the three existing NTN schools in the districts will receive support to improve their effectiveness. This integrated approach of working at multiple levels in each participating district ensures the continued spread and long-term sustainability of NTN's proven instructional model.
The initiative also involves a significant amount of cross-district learning and collaboration, a key strategic factor in supporting each district to sustain the innovative approaches to teaching and learning. The cross-district network creates a community of educators focused on the same goal of graduating all students with deeper learning skills and competencies.
Dr. Franklin Foster, superintendent at Colleton County School District where Murray teaches, says participating in the initiative and "collaborating with the other South Carolina districts is a huge shift. For the first time, people at the district and school levels are seeing themselves as part of a network of learners across the state and nation and finding great value in that. We have seen people excited about learning again."
Dr. Foster believes the effort will deliver positive outcomes. In 2013, with a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, the district partnered with NTN to open Cougar New Tech, the first NTN school in his district that now serves as a model for the entire network. There is "clear evidence that the approach works," he says, and that it "ensures that students leave ready, with skills needed in life."
For instructional leaders like Murray, it is much deeper than just preparing students for college and career. She wants to give all students the chance to unlock their fullest potential. Recently, when a student wasn't engaged in her classes, Murray leaned on the strong relationships NTN teachers have with students in their small school settings. She dug deeper to find out how to motivate the student. After uncovering his passion for basketball, she pushed him to apply himself and improve his academic performance in order to be eligible to play basketball for the school.
"This sparked a desire to work even harder," she says. "The odds were against him, but through perseverance and support, he beat the odds."
The student who almost failed high school went on to graduate and earn his diploma.
For Murray and many other teachers working with NTN, helping students is their passion. She says, "The student who comes to my classroom with the unrealized potential is the student that keeps me fighting."