ON THIS HOLY day of transformation and renewal and hope, I could think of no better secular topic to discuss than a program that, in its own tiny way, is working to transform and renew the most important thing South Carolina’s government does: our schools.
The mission of TransformSC is of course much smaller and less important than the unfathomable miracle of the Resurrection — what isn’t? — but the potential it holds for our state is still enormous.
S.C. AT&T President Pam Lackey, one of the business leaders who founded and leads the initiative, calls it an “innovation incubator.” And when you realize how little education has changed from the days when most children spent their summers and evenings working the family fields, you begin to understand how valuable that is.
TransformSC began less than three years ago with the ambitious goal of changing the culture of education in our state. Although it is not directly related to the Legislature’s efforts to answer a Supreme Court demand to provide a decent education for every child, it dovetails nicely.
It grew out of the frustration of the state’s business leaders that they couldn’t find employees who could even be trained for entry-level work. What was needed, they decided, was to upend the whole way students are taught; the problem was knowing exactly how to do that.
So they brought together an amazing collection of supporters — the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, S.C. Association of School Administrators, S.C. School Boards Association, S.C. Education Oversight Committee, the S.C. Teachers Association and the Palmetto Teachers Association, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and an impressive group of individual businesses. And they set out to assist schools that already are experimenting with innovative new ways of teaching, to encourage those who want to innovate but have no idea how, to help transformers and would-be transformers share information and ideas and to clear away political, regulatory and statutory impediments.
Participating schools must commit — and back that commitment up with detailed plans — to transform “every student, every teacher, every classroom, every day.” That could involve project-based team learning or Montessori or online-enhanced education, or something none of us has heard of yet.
The effort is still too young to have meaningful results, but an early snapshot is impressive: At Cougar New Tech in Walterboro, discipline referrals fell by 90 percent and the reading level of ninth-graders increased by nearly three years in the first year; the pass rate in English and math classes shot up by about 15 percentage points by the second year. At Swansea’s Early Childhood Center, which adopted a 4K Montessori program it is expanding to younger students, children’s motor skills and grasp of concepts and language increased by about 10 percentage points over two years, and the number of parents who attend monthly workshops has gone up by a third.
There are currently 40 TransformSC schools, and about 60 more are going through the application process. Most of the 60 are being told “not yet” because officials want to make sure they are up to the challenge. Applicants must submit a three-year innovation plan, and it has to apply to the whole school, not just to a classroom or two. “Some applications are to reform, not to transform,” says Peggy Torrey, director of education and workforce investments for the S.C. Council on Competitiveness, TransformSC’s parent.
Becoming a TransformSC school is like being accepted into a leadership program: Just completing the self-assessment helps schools focus on transformation. Once they’re in, they get some individualized attention, the business community commits to supporting them if they get pushback from parents, school boards or legislators, and they get analytics to measure their progress. But mostly, school leaders get to participate in conferences and action teams that meet regularly to talk about what works and what doesn’t.
The hope is not so much that more schools will join the network, but that other schools will be inspired to try similar innovations. So, for instance, the “not yet” schools are being assigned a mentor school in the network, to help them innovate outside of the program.
BB&T state President Mike Brenan, who chairs the State Board of Education, notes that everyone who’s serious about public education has adopted the “Profile of the South Carolina graduate” that was developed by the S.C. Association of School Administrators at the behest of himself and others who helped found TransformSC. The profile includes predictable academic components but is noteworthy for its emphasis on such skills and attributes as creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, work ethic and interpersonal skills.
“This is different than anything else we’ve ever tried in South Carolina,” he said. And as the effort gets national attention, educators and business leaders are starting to ask themselves: “Why can’t South Carolina be the leader? Why can’t we be the state that shows the rest of the nation how to do this?”
It’s not the sort of questions we’re used to asking ourselves. And that, in itself, is pretty hopeful — and potentially transformational.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.