S.C. schools are making strong strides

Shannon Feit works on a social studies project about pueblos with second-graders at Goodwin Elementary School. In personalized learning classrooms some students use tablets, while others do projects without the technology. (Wade Spees/Staff)

Everywhere I go in South Carolina, I see enthusiasm, positive energy and innovation in our public school classrooms. When I meet with parents, community leaders, business men and women, and those in higher education, they are excited by the innovation our teachers and students are creating. I share their vision of a bright future for our state.

The foundation for transformative education begins with rigorous standards and high expectations. I am proud of the new English and Math standards that we recently adopted to replace the Common Core. We had 365 teachers, an all-time high, from across South Carolina apply to serve on the writing teams to develop drafts of our new standards. We created two task forces and brought together nearly 100 parents, university and technical college professors, and community and business leaders to review the drafts of the new standards. These task forces saw room for further innovation in the standards, which led to more collaboration and revised drafts. We asked the public for input and received more than 18,000 comments. We held further discussions over two months and kept refining the drafts, incorporating positive suggestions. After spending more than 10,000 hours over 10 months, the standards were carefully reviewed and voted on five separate times by the State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee, and certified unanimously by our college and university provosts as college- and career-ready.

I am proud of the transparent process and collaborative approach we took with parents, teachers, business leaders and higher education leaders, developing our own high-quality South Carolina standards.

I am excited by the expansion of project-based learning in our schools, an innovative practice that is helping students learn in new ways, including in the Lowcountry. Goodwin Elementary is a pilot school in the Charleston County School District that is part of the district’s personalized learning program. Students use project-based learning to grasp and master concepts on their own timeline. Under this model, teachers evolve from being the “sage on the stage” — an education model first utilized decades ago, where educators deliver lectures — to becoming a “guide by the side” empowering students to work on projects by themselves or in teams and providing guidance along the way. This hands-on learning gets students active, motivated, and excited to learn.

At the Lowcountry Tech Academy, students take advanced classes aligned with the needs of high-tech employers in the area, including cyber security, health informatics, digital art and design, clean energy and business information management. This is a great example of students taking hands-on classes that excite them and will open doors for them after graduation.

Pinehurst Elementary is a Title One school with a growing Hispanic student population. It is also a high-performing school with a nationally recognized personalized learning program. I saw firsthand when I visited how great leadership combined with a positive learning climate can benefit students and their local community.

At Charles Pinckney Elementary, a fifth grade science class became the first classroom in the country to provide kinesthetic learning tables for all students. Here, students are on the go — literally — as they keep themselves moving during lessons. I am excited to see that this “action-based learning” also takes place at R.B. Stall High School, in its “brain room.” Students at the school receive high-level instruction and curriculum, which includes pre-engineering classes, visual arts and career and technology courses. They compete in robotics competitions and learn about airplanes through a partnership with Boeing. This is a great example of the connectivity we’re seeing across the state between the business community and our public education system.

Throughout South Carolina, we’re embracing personalized learning, where flexibility and innovation are promoted in a team environment. Students have embraced technology in the classroom and we’re putting the world at their fingertips. Our state’s virtual education school now offers nearly 100 courses, which can all be taken online, including Advanced Placement classes, world languages and web design.

Project-based learning and classroom innovation are creating endless opportunities for our students. We are in a high-energy, exciting time for public education in South Carolina. Let’s celebrate our successes and strive for even greater achievement.

Molly M. Spearman, a Republican, is South Carolina’s superintendent of education.