Success in Rural, High-Poverty Public High Schools: Path to Equity?

By Lydia Dobyns

There is no getting around the hard work it takes to change schools, and the even harder amount of work required to sustain that change. It is as if there is some magnetic pull “back” to the way it has always been: a one-size-fits-all classroom approach to teaching and learning. And yet, despite decades of failing to provide effective and compelling education to some of South Carolina’s most under-served high poverty rural communities, a partnership that started six years ago serves as a beacon of hope. Perhaps even a turning point.

Scott’s Branch High School in tiny Summerton, S.C., a historic school that was the focus of a 1950’s court case that led directly to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, has partnered with New Tech Network and has lifted itself out of state sanctions. By implementing the New Tech school model, classroom learning is now relevant to students’ lives and preparing its graduates for college and career opportunities. The school is now earning good ratings on state report cards for the first time.

Starting transformation efforts at the same time was Colleton County High School, in the larger town of Walterboro. It launched Cougar New Tech, a career academy. In 2017, in its first graduating class, 100% of the seniors graduated. Based on this success, the Health Careers Academy began implementing the New Tech model this year. The school district also expanded New Tech into Bells Elementary School in the tiny Ruffin community.

The successful partnerships forged within districts and schools serve as a replicable path for school transformation across the country. These two South Carolina high schools are the subject of a new mini-documentary and website called A Turning Point in South Carolina:

The success at both schools can be attributed to three things: 1) implementation of the New Tech school model; 2) the benefits of joining a school network and 3) the multi-year commitment of district leaders, principals and classroom educators to make deep and lasting changes in every aspect of their schools. The New Tech model was developed to prepare students for the demands of college and the workplace and to anchor students’ learning to their community through Project Based Learning (PBL). New Tech Network provides a robust set of supports that include teacher professional development, leadership development, coaching and online resources.

All of us want students to prepare for the real world, so why not ask them to learn in it? At Scott’s Branch, students developed a digital history of the Briggs v. Elliott case that led to Brown and their community’s importance in the civil rights movement.

The way students learn at school should match the world they’re living in and preparing for. We want students to graduate from high school knowing what their next step into college, technical training, and the workplace will be—and how to accomplish it. In these schools, students can tell you why they’re learning what they’re learning, and why it matters to them.

The teachers and principals in these rural communities also can tap into the knowledge of a small army of colleagues from outside their school and district: They regularly join colleagues from across the internet and in person for meaningful workshops and discussion groups. This has helped them to overcome the isolation so common in many rural schools and to find new skills and knowledge.

New Tech Network provides a research-based and guided model for school growth that is being constantly refined. These rural educators benefit from our 15+ years of supporting hundreds of schools. Our model works in part because each school can use it in their own way, adapting it to their own students’ and community’s circumstances. All is for naught without local community support. New Tech’s school model requires in-depth local conversations to decide we’re a good fit for the school. Pushing new school models onto a community doesn’t work.

We’ve also learned that a real change in the culture of a school takes time. New Tech’s model requires a school to investigate itself deeply. It takes patience and commitment. Anything less is superficial and may not survive changes in school or district leadership, a common refrain for schools in rural or low-resource communities.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley, a South Carolina native and former two-term governor, first had the idea to bring New Tech Network to rural parts of the state.

After visiting New Tech High School in Napa County, Calif., he engaged the Riley Institute at his alma mater Furman University, and consulted with business and philanthropic leaders in the state. Their discussions led to a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant brought New Tech Network into several schools, including Scott’s Branch and Colleton County High.

These two rural schools in Secretary Riley’s beloved home state offer hope to similar schools and evidence that such schools can make tremendous progress. More importantly, students in these schools know their education is preparing them for a better future. How many students in traditionally low achieving schools can make that claim?

For more, see:

Lydia Dobyns is President and CEO of New Tech Network. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaDobyns.

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1 Comment


Each school operates on its own way, and acts as part of our model because of embracing their own students and community circumstances. Not everything is naked without local community support. The new Tech school model requires deep local conversations to decide that the school is a good fit.

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