S.C. Education Superintendent Spearman talks the future of schools

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman (center) talks with Summerville High School students Angel Miller and Bryan Lussier in their principles of engineering class Wednesday morning. Spearman was in Summerville ahead of givign her State of Education speech at the College of Charleston later that night.

Ahead of her speech on the state of education at the College of Charleston, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman praised Summerville High School administrators Wednesday during a tour for rolling out innovative programs that mirror some statewide trends in education.

One of the most noticeable changes in the halls of SHS this year is that the 3,009 students have a single hour-long lunch period, unlike the four shorter lunch periods in previous years. Students are free to walk the halls of the school during lunch, with kiosks in various wings of the massive campus offering meal options in addition to the central cafeteria.

During that period, known as Individual Learning Time, students can attend club meetings, work on school projects or visit teachers for tutoring. Students who are failing a class are required to spend 40 minutes on certain days of the week in a remedial program called Structured Learning Time.

Principal Kenneth Farrell said that, combined with a newly implemented later start time for high schools in the district, the ILT program is already showing results: Disciplinary referrals are down 66 percent from this time last school year, with a marked decrease in behavior problems during lunch.

Spearman said other schools around the state are trying out ILT, and she’s confident the idea will be successful.

“I love that concept,” Spearman said. “This is what we call competency-based, and it’s students taking responsibility for their learning. There are some districts that have even blocked the learning time in different 15-minute cycles, and (students) can decide where they need to go.”

Spearman paid a visit to some of the nontraditional classes that have been added at SHS in recent years, including a biomedics class, where groups of students dripped fake blood on paper to analyze splatter patterns, and a principles of engineering class, where students sat in pods of up to four and built simple machines out of Erector-style pieces.

Spearman said schools should be working on more project-based, collaborative classroom activities like she saw on her visit to SHS.

“This is what we want to see happening, not just in the engineering program, but this can happen in science class and math class and English class where you integrate all of the curriculum into a project and the students work together,” she said. “This is really great to see.”

On Wednesday evening, Spearmen addressed a room full of current and retired teachers, school administrators, education advocates and students at the College of Charleston’s Stern Center. At the event, hosted by the Charleston League of Women Voters, she endorsed summer and after-school programs for at-risk children and stressed the importance of high-quality early childhood education to close the achievement gap between low-income children and children of color and their white, middle class peers.

“We’ve been fooling ourselves into thinking that we can fix this during the school day,” she said. “We’re smarter than that.”

Her comments on raising teachers’ starting salaries drew the biggest applause.

“It’s ridiculous that an early teacher has to work two or three jobs,” she said. “Our teacher salary schedule is so messed up, it’s beyond repair.”

Spearman also offered a glimpse into her upcoming legislative priorities, including her recommendations to lawmakers on how to improve South Carolina’s impoverished rural schools in response to the state Supreme Court’s landmark decision on education funding last year.

In 1993, under Abbeville County School District vs. South Carolina, roughly half of the state’s school districts sued the state on the grounds that the Legislature had failed to adequately fund poor, rural districts. The S.C. Supreme Court sided with schools in November and put the onus on the Legislature to find solutions.

Spearman, a member of the Legislature’s education reform task force, discussed providing students with access and transportation to classes at technical colleges, investing more in school infrastructure, increasing pay for rural teachers and the “big ‘C’ word.”

“Consolidation. Some don’t want to talk about this, but there are some very small districts that are too small and very inefficient, and we have got to come up with some incentives,” she said. “ I think there are some conversations that need to take place in these very, very small districts, who are, quite honestly, still segregated by race or socioeconomics. ... It’s time for the adults to do the right thing.”

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers. Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.