The Rock Hill Climb to Challenge-Based Work

The Rock Hill School District’s mission is “to engage all students in meaningful and profound learning in order to prepare them for successful futures.”  The 17,400 student South Carolina district in just south of Charlotte.  I visited yesterday for their annual Student Engagement Conference.
The Rock Hill Climb, the district plan adopted in 2010, is driven by the four focus areas:

  • Shared Vision and Beliefs – Articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision and belief system that is shared and supported by all stakeholders so that students can learn, grow, connect and thrive.
  • Future Focus – Create school environments that promote student conceptual understanding and use of critical skills in problem solving, collaboration, and communication with the ability to reflect, evaluate and create in the digital environment of the 21st century.
  • Nurturing Environment – Create an environment that is emotionally, physically and intellectually safe for all stakeholders so that student may learn, grow, connect and thrive.
  • Quality Work Design/Delivery – Use of data in the planning and delivery of instruction aligned to content standards using specific structures including professional development, differentiation, technology, and School Improvement Plans (SIP) to help all students achieve excellence.

iRock.  The district’s tech-enhanced instructional initiative is called iRock Anytime Anywhere.  The leadership team built a thoughtful rational for their digital transition: 1) Increase student engagement, 2) Level the playing field, 3) Personalize education, and 4) Challenging real-world work.
Christopher Smith is Director of Staff Development and leads iRock.  He said, “Engaging work, according to Phil Schlechty, has design qualities that make the work engaging:  product focus, choice, novelty and variety, authenticity, and affirmation of performance. Technology makes it easier to build these qualities into work.”
In making the case, the leadership team said, “Every child should have access to the resources and tools they need to succeed,” and “Every child is different.  Technology can assist teachers in meeting diverse needs.”  They also emphasized community connected challenges, “Students can and should give back to the communities in which they reside.”  The 4th  and 5th grade Montessori students in the picture were documenting places of historical interest that had been lost of forgotten.  They discovered old fallout shelters, lookout points from World War II.
After long discussions with the community and school board, iRock was launched in March with an attractive website that outlines the intent in a particularly thoughtful way: 

We believe it is our responsibility to inspire and motivate students to be continuous learners. We know the needs of the future are different from the needs of the past and this requires us to transform how we teach.  We are not afraid to learn with our students in creating these new learning experiences. As a result of this work, we will ensure our students are problem solvers, critical thinkers, collaborators, and communicators.
We want every student in Rock Hill Schools to have a mobile learning device for use at school and home. It will be personalized and customized through unlimited apps and digital textbooks based on the individual needs and learning style of students. It will allow students to access instruction and provide them with the flexibility to learn anytime and anywhere.
Our students must be prepared for the work environment of the future where mobile technology can be used to explore, research, and create solutions to real world challenges. Solving real world problems will make learning more relevant, challenging and engaging.

This year the district is implementing 1:1 iPads in grades 4-8 and selected high school classrooms. Smith said, “Our focus will be on moving teachers through the “Adaptation” level of use. At this stage teachers use the device to supplement or enhance existing work.”
Smith helps coordinate deployment and training with senior district leaders in curriculum, technology, finance, and communications  (a project team as described in the Blended Learning Implementation Guide).
“Long term, we want to move teachers into the Appropriation and Innovation stages, where use of the device transforms teaching and learning,” said Smith. “We envision a blended learning environment where teachers have the flexibility to dedicate time to Challenge Based Learning activities and projects, small group work, and opportunities to work one on one with students.”
Some big questions.  At the conference, the Rock Hill staff surfaced a few big questions:

  • System of schools or school systems?  Rock Hill has an interesting array of school options.  Creating high access environments has reignited questions about where most schools would use a similar approach (like Mooresville to the north) or if the district would become an even more diverse portfolio of options.
  • Tablets or laptops?  The decision to implement iPads in grades 4-8 leaves open the question of what to do at the high school level where production requirements are more demanding.
  • Equity with growing challenge? Poverty levels have doubled in Rock Hill over the last decade.  Blended learning plans now have the added burden of equity considerations and home broadband access for low income families.
  • How to best leverage teacher leadership? Rock Hill is has lots of great teachers. More than 50 had pilot classrooms last year that showed the path forward.
  • How to build coherent challenge-based environments?  After I summarized 20 promising blended models, a principal noted that most of them had been purpose built and enjoyed a good deal of autonomy.  Like all districts making the digital transition, it will be important to support the development of individual educators within a framework likely to produce networks of coherent and effective schools.

Chief architect of The Rock Hill Climb was superintendent Lynn P. Moody who recently was named superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System on the other side of Charlotte.   The next superintendent will inherit a great tradition and strong staff, and (like system heads everywhere) some big questions.

Tom - Speaking Engagements

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


Mr Vander Ark,
Thank you for joining us at our Student Engagement Conference in Rock Hill, SC.

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