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Riley Institute lays groundwork for New Tech schools in South Carolina

Riley Institute New Tech schools

South Carolina’s educational system needs a push if the state is to continue to compete well in a global economy. The Riley Institute at Furman and its partners are working toward that transformation.

The innovative New Tech Network design focuses on project-based learning across multiple disciplines and a one-to-one computer ratio. It is based on a culture of trust, responsibility, and respect. This Network currently has 160 schools in 27 states and three continents.

The design was first implemented in South Carolina in 2013-2014 with two schools located in the area known as “the Corridor of Shame” and has since expanded to an additional seven schools, including three in Greenville County.

“It’s exciting. I know it has an impact, especially in these rural counties,” said Dr. Don Gordon, executive director of the Riley Institute. “It’s teaching 21st century learning skills.”

Richard Riley, former governor of South Carolina and secretary of education in the Clinton administration, agrees.

“It’s an amazing experiment” for South Carolina, he said, although the concept has been underway throughout the nation for 18 years. “It is innovation.”

Dr. Melissa Crosby, dean of Cougar New Tech in Colleton County, said her school became interested in the New Tech Network when the school superintendent learned about the program from the Riley Institute.

Riley Institute officials approached the superintendent after a careful statewide selection process for its federal Investing in Innovation grant proposal with KnowledgeWorks. The Institute was looking for two rural, high-poverty, historically low-performing schools to partner with. Colleton County High school, a large school, and Scott’s branch High School, a small school that underwent a whole-school conversion, were selected.

Colleton County was interested in a “school within a school” concept as the county has only one comprehensive high school.

“We felt like we wouldn’t be offering our children choice if we went ‘whole school,’” said Cosby.

According to Courtenay L. Nantz, project coordinator with the Riley Institute, early data in the first two schools is showing an improvement in English and math, with particular improvement in math among minority students. The schools have also seen a decline in suspensions and absenteeism.

Prior to implementation of the new concept, a Riley Institute-sponsored study of public education in South Carolina began in 2005, the largest study of its kind in the state. A $600,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation allowed researchers to study what the educational stakeholders—school boards, administrators, teachers, parents, students and business people—really want education to be. More than 100 separate meetings were held in every school district and county in the state with groups of eight to 10 people talking about what was good with education, what was not good, and how should it be fixed. Besides the discussions, participants answered a 160-question survey.

“We were looking for what those groups see as essential to education in South Carolina,” Gordon said. Among those essentials were early childhood programs for 3 and 4-year-olds, the recruiting and retention of highly qualified teachers, and the need to improve students’ critical thinking skills.

A follow-up grant of $400,000 supported a study of how to take those expectations and make them work, he said.

The result was a partnership between the Riley Institute and KnowledgeWorks to gain a grant of $2.9 million to initiate a New Tech network in the state. Two high schools, both with a high-poverty, low-performing student body, were selected as models. Colleton County High School created Cougar New Tech, a school within a school, and Scott’s Branch High School in Clarendon County underwent a whole-school conversion. The New Tech program began with ninth graders in 2013, with an additional grade added each year.

The New Tech programs for those schools will become self-sustaining in the fifth year of operation.

Selecting the New Tech design required a lot of research. During his tenure as U.S. secretary of education in the 1990s, Riley discovered the program in California.

“He walked into the classroom and found what seemed to be chaos,” said Nantz. But as he hung around, he found the kids were completely engaged with each other and in their work. Students form small teams to work on projects and teachers act as facilitators. The teacher designs quality projects and students refine them.

“They learn by doing,” said Riley.

Initially, a New Tech school has to create a culture of respect, responsibility, and trust. That comes first.

Don Gordon, executive director of the Riley Institute, and Richard Riley, former governor of South Carolina and secretary of education in the Clinton Administration

Don Gordon (L), executive director of the Riley Institute, and Richard Riley (R), former governor of South Carolina and secretary of education in the Clinton Administration

“I think we’re building leaders . . . students’ buy-in of project-based learning has to improve the graduation rate. They don’t just know what they do in class. They know what they want to do in the future,” said Crosby.

Students have the ability to “fire” a team mate who is not performing the necessary work. That fired student is kicked off the team and must start and complete the project alone.

Another difference is that multiple teachers are involved in the projects. For example, a project might be based on the construction of an amusement park in an earthquake-ravaged area of Japan plus writing and selling of a book about the park. That could include math, physics, English, and geography.

“The other neat thing is that projects are authentic,” Crosby said. “They’re tied to something that is real.”

The outcome is they understand why they’re learning what they’re learning. In addition, the students present their findings to peer groups, teachers, and business people.

And implementing the program is not easy.

Teachers have to be trained to become a facilitator rather than a lecturer, receiving 600 hours of professional development during the implementation process. They visit other New Tech schools and attend an annual conference as well as regional opportunities for collaboration. Also, a coach from the New Tech Network is assigned to each New Tech school, visiting about once a month and available virtually any time to assist with problems and work out any kinks.

Crosby, who said Cougar New Tech is “high in terms of success,” began planning and selecting faculty for the school well before the concept was implemented. When she was hiring the initial Cougar New Tech teachers, she used several strategies to find teachers who would fit—she gave them information to review, asked them to write up a project-based scenario, and then interviewed the applicants. She also divided the teachers into two groups and had them work through planning a project-based unit.

“We were looking for teachers who were creative and open to suggestion from others but able to stand up for their ideas. Teachers in New Tech must share the air, but must be able to support their own ideas,” she said.

Once a month during the year prior to implementation, the faculty held staff development days, including working on developing specific skills such as writing. They also visited other New Tech schools and attended workshops and conferences.

Students must apply, with a one-hour mandatory parental meeting. The first class was made up of 80 students, and the program is working. Freshman results were strong. A student must pass six courses including math and science to be promoted, and only two of 80 students were held back after the first year while the average in this school would be 12.

The school has a waiting list with 80 additional freshmen added in the second year and 110 expected to enroll in Cougar New Tech next year.

And when talking with Cougar students, you would not believe you’re talking to 9th or 10th graders.

Teachers in the traditional program visited Cougar, and “were blown away,” said Crosby. “They couldn’t believe they were talking to 9th or 10th graders. One said, ‘It sounds like I’m talking to seniors.’”

Crosby expects a move toward one-to-one computer access and project-based learning will become more prevalent in the entire high school and elsewhere.

“The kids—their brains function a little differently with stimulation and touch. They are inundated with technology. It takes a lot more to retain their attention” than it did in the past, she said. “The kids can think deeper. They’ve been conditioned to question things. They move so much faster.”

Costs for implementing the New Tech design varies based on size of the school, geography, and other factors. The costs are highest during the four to five-year implementation of the design, but continuation costs are very affordable. The equipment also costs money, but often businesses step in to provide that type of support.

The Riley Institute helps schools connect with the New Tech Network, and with the support of the South Carolina Department of Education, the Institute has partnered with the education departments at Furman, Winthrop, Claflin University, and the College of Charleston to develop a three-course endorsement to help teachers and prospective teachers learn to design, deliver, and assess quality project-based learning. The coursework, syllabi, and resources will be open source, available to any college of education.

Last updated July 14, 2015
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director