Hartsville, South Carolina’s schools suffer from high poverty rates and strained resources, but officials there hope a $5 million dollar donation from a local corporation will launch a unique program that can turn it around.
The idea, first announced Monday, is to start a technique known as the Comer Process. Also called the School Development Program, it focuses both on the child’s development through the elementary school years and on getting parents involved. Darlington County School District Superintendent Rainey Knight says the concept targets parents who aren’t active in the school.
You would think the most important thing for them would be their children’s education, but oftentimes when I’m talking with the mom, it’s just, “I’m having to pay the electricity bill and the lights are turned off.” It’s just not her top priority. So, how do we work with parents in that kind of situation?
Knight hopes the Comer process offers a solution. Developed at Yale University in the late 1960s, it has been credited with reviving several failing schools in Chicago and the Caribbean, but has also met mixed success in other areas. Any time a school implements it requires extensive studies from professional consultants who interview all faculty members (teachers, counselors, etc.) and determine how and where to build faculty-student relationships.
The process requires a massive amount of time and money which the school district would not have had if not for a $5 million donation from Hartsville packaging giant Sonoco Products Company.
The process views an elementary school as more of a community center, where students can not only get help on their studies, but also their personal issues, as well. Knight says she hopes teachers and students begin to bond better.
It means making sure that you’re developing relationships with these children, so that you know when Johnny comes in that door, something is not right. Rather than trying to fight through that all day… some schools have what we call a little “turn-off” room, where Johnny might go for 10 minutes.
The students at Hartsville’s four elementary schools are mostly lower income, with three-quarters on free or reduced lunch. Knight said the rate is worse when Medicaid is factored in.
Because the schools would have to undergo core changes for the Comer Process with no additional funding, the superintendent said it was offered as a voluntary option. However, all four schools agreed to start it.
The five-year grant will also provide an alternative for students at Hartsville High School who are interested in the arts. Due to limited resources, the school does not offer many electives at all. However, part of Sonoco’s pledge will help pay the tuition costs for some local students to take advantage of classes at the nearby Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics– a state-run school that offers high-standard courses. But Knight notes it also includes arts electives.
There are courses we can’t offer. I don’t offer dance. I don’t offer drama. I don’t offer accelerated courses in visual arts… and I don’t offer private lessons in cello and some of these things. But, these will all be available to any child at Hartsville High School, beginning next year.
Called PULSE (Partners for Unparalleled Local Scholastic Excellence), the public-private partnership is the first of its kind in South Carolina.
Students in advanced classes will also have to option to take courses at Coker College–a private liberal arts institution in Hartsville. The college would provide instructors to teach languages not currently offered in the public schools, such as Mandarin Chinese. Students can also take courses at the college itself.
Knight says most of the $5 million will be used to cover tuition costs at the Governor’s School and to pay for consultants. She said it will not allow the school to hire extra teachers or buy more resources.
She does hope it will help break a cycle of poverty among local students.
Most of this doesn’t take any money… I can’t sit here today and tell you, “Yeah, this is going to work.” There’s no silver bullet. It’s just man and woman-power and desire.
Of course, a little cooperation and financial assistance never hurt, either.