Future of Learning

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

When students understand what and why they are learning

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.

Related: Can online learning level the AP playing field for rural kids?

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.

A major factor in the improvement of these rural South Carolina schools is their participation in a national network comprised of other teachers and principals. In many schools, no matter their location, educators often feel isolated and overwhelmed when incorporating new skills and teaching methods. In a network, they can join colleagues from across the country virtually and in person for meaningful collaboration and professional development.

Related: Project-based learning and standardized tests don’t mix

Proven models for school innovation are on the minds of many educators, policymakers and philanthropic organizations. The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires each state to submit detailed plans for how they’ll help large numbers of low-performing schools.

In the nearly 200 schools that partner with New Tech Network, district leaders, principals and classroom educators make the choice to overhaul and strengthen the culture of both adult and student learning. The network was born in that high school in Napa 20 years ago, and there is now a growing body of research demonstrating the efficacy of the model. The network continues to innovate and improve the model as well as the network’s support for communities implementing it.

Hard-fought success is happening in these rural South Carolina schools that struggled for decades with low achievement. I applaud the commitment of these communities to start — and sustain — meaningful changes that benefit all students.

South Carolina’s state motto is Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” These school communities give hope to all of us who want better for our children in the rural South and all across the country.

This story about the future of learning and rural education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Richard Riley served eight years as U.S. Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration and eight years as Governor of South Carolina. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves on New Tech Network’s board of advisers.

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Richard Riley

Richard Riley served eight years as U.S. Secretary of Education and eight years as Governor of South Carolina. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and… See Archive

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