Opinion Extra

Jefferson: Fixing education in South Carolina requires fresh ideas


I started my career as a biology teacher at C.A. Johnson High School, determined to leave a lasting impact on my students. Although I was prepared to work hard, I wasn’t ready for the vast obstacles to teaching students in an inner city school.

Many students’ lives at home included problems no child should have to deal with. Yet it was my job to teach them each school day. I couldn’t control the entire world my students lived in, but I could control it during the hour they sat in my class.

So I rolled up my sleeves.

I needed to create an environment where they could succeed. I learned about each of my students’ struggles. I developed individual, student-focused lesson plans, and I adopted hands-on learning units so they could see science in action.

I designed experiences in my biology class to motivate students to become future biologists, mathematicians, chemists, geneticists or chemical engineers. My goal was to leave them with a love for the sciences.

When I saw their eyes light up over a new discovery, I began to feel like I was having that impact I so badly craved and they so badly needed.

My passion for reaching students continued to grow at C.A. Johnson. Soon, the biology test scores used to evaluate my department climbed.

Under the leadership of our principal, Nathan White, and the motto, “No Disposable Kids,” the school’s culture shifted. Teaching became fun. Humor, authenticity and culturally relevant teaching became my trademarks; they enabled me to further reach my students.

Education in South Carolina is in crisis. Our state Supreme Court ruled last year in Abbeville v. South Carolina that an adequate education isn’t provided to all students. The court ordered the Legislature to make good on the promise that every public school should equip students to be successful. But as the debate simmers — and days evaporate — we risk losing another opportunity for our students to learn.

The model that worked at C.A. Johnson can be a catalyst to improve struggling schools in every district. What I did on a small scale needs to take place on a large scale. For that to happen, lawmakers must help.

There is progress. In response to the Abbeville decision, legislators created task forces to determine viable ways to fix education in our state. By December, these task forces likely will vote on which solution the full House and Senate should consider passing to give all students a fair shake.

But there’s still work to be done. I believe the most viable option is a model that mirrors the success I had in the classroom and paves the way for teachers to have the freedom to step outside of the box when teaching in challenging environments. That model is called the achievement-school district, and it has produced tremendous results in several states. It keeps innovative teaching methods at the heart of the curriculum and empowers teachers and administrators to customize teaching styles and recognize that innovation is at the heart of student learning.

Achievement-school districts improve community schools. Students continue to attend the public school for which they’re zoned, and communities see real benefits from having their existing school improved.

We can improve schools in South Carolina, too, but we must act boldly and with some passion, some compassion, some humor and a little style. And, if I may add, with some urgency.

Please visit SCAchievementSchoolDistrict.org to learn more about achievement-school districts and how they can become reality in South Carolina.

Ms. Jefferson was named the 2015 S.C. biology teacher of the year; contact her at cjefferson@lex2.org.