Clemson initiatives aim to transform education in the Palmetto State
Two days after exam week, Hailea Ringer found herself in a cozy dining room, chatting with a local minister and five fellow Clemson education majors. Laughs were shared and homemade chicken bog was served to welcome the students to the small town of Bamberg, S.C., where they would soon begin a week-long immersive teaching experience at the high school down the road.
But the classrooms were not quite as inviting. The best textbooks had ripped pages and broken bindings. The building’s few overhead projectors stubbornly refused to turn on. And the ninth graders they had prepared lesson plans for were less than hospitable.
They’d never been given a reason to be.
“Many rural communities don’t think highly of universities like Clemson,” Ringer said. “They come, they do research, and they leave.” As someone who grew up in a rural South Carolina community, Ringer speaks from the experience of these students.
But Ringer and her cohort of Moore Scholars didn’t travel to Bamberg for research. Their mission was to make personal, enduring connections with students and help fulfill Clemson’s responsibility as a land-grant institution. As ambassadors of the Eugene T. Moore School of Education, they focus on improving the quality of life in South Carolina by improving education. And it couldn’t come at a better time for the Palmetto State.
In South Carolina, nearly 30 percent of individuals under the age of 18 live below the poverty line. That’s more than 288,000 children who live without the guarantee of dinner on the table, medicine when they’re sick or clothes to wear to school. Many of these students live along the Interstate-95 Corridor in small agricultural towns, which traditionally thrived on tourism from beach-bound vacationers. Now that the interstate allows travelers to bypass these communities, property taxes and state-supported school funding have plummeted. It’s known nationally as “The Corridor of Shame.”
But George J. Petersen, founding dean of Clemson’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education, does not flinch in the face of alarming statistics. Personal experience has taught him that education can be the turning point for an individual and a community.
Petersen grew up in poverty in East Los Angeles. His mother had been a migrant farm worker, a maid and a seamstress, and used her meager earnings to support her three children. There were times when they would have to shuffle in and out of motels or stay with relatives. Determined to provide a better life for her family, Petersen’s mother spent nights and weekends studying. She eventually received a high school education and a college degree — all while working full-time.
With an education, everything changed. Petersen’s mother became a kindergarten teacher, which allowed the family to move to a small town in Southern California and build a stable home. Upon their mother’s insistence and with her unconditional support, Petersen and his siblings went on to earn college degrees of their own. Now, all three siblings have successful careers: one is a doctor, one is a New York City executive and one, of course, is a college dean.
But Petersen isn’t alone in his mission to revolutionize education in South Carolina. He is surrounded by a team of colleagues who, though they may not have traveled the same path, are making strides to address entrenched issues of poverty, access, equity and diversity in education.
One program that reflects the goals of the Eugene T. Moore School of Education is the Emerging Scholars Program, a Clemson Access and Equity program that focuses on high school students from Allendale, Bamberg and Hampton counties — all along the I-95 Corridor.
High school students selected as Emerging Scholars go to summer sessions on Clemson’s campus where they take academic classes led by School of Education faculty, participate in team-building courses and learn about college accessibility firsthand. Between on-campus phases, Emerging Scholars meet with mentors from their summer sessions, attend social activities in their home counties and go to college recruitment events. They also continue the Emerging Scholars summer curriculum during the school year through local academic workshops and college trips.
“What we try to get embedded in their minds is that high school graduation is expected,” said Jason Combs, assistant program director and Emerging Scholar alum from Allendale, SC. “Then we get them to ask, ‘What am I going to do after that?’ From the get-go, we give them options and help them see what’s best for them as students.”
Even though Emerging Scholars prepares students to pursue higher education at whatever institution they choose, the program recently announced a scholarship that will cover tuition and housing costs for scholars who come to Clemson. They hope it will continue in future years.
These students also take what they learn to their home environments. Over this past summer, scholars from Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School learned about sustainability. They wrote letters to their principal asking him to implement a recycling program in order to improve their environmental impact. Without any influence from Clemson, the principal agreed to the scholars’ proposal. Now, the high school and an elementary school have recycling bins on their campuses.
The ability to read is essential to navigating today’s world, but this seemingly simple skill is often taken for granted. As an adult, reading text messages and instructions on prescription bottles could be lifesaving. For students who have difficulty learning to read, everyday tasks in and out of school can be challenging.
“Being able to read opens children’s minds to a world of possibilities, but it also helps them navigate everyday life,” said C. C. Bates, Clemson professor in education and director of the Clemson University Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Training Center for South Carolina.
The Reading Recovery program is an early intervention program designed to help children who are struggling to learn to read and write. Clemson provides coursework and ongoing professional development for teachers on effective literacy practices. Each year, teachers trained through Clemson touch the lives of about 10,000 students during one-on-one or group lessons.
“Ultimately, we’d love to see students served in Reading Recovery come to Clemson, but it is most important that they function as literate and productive citizens,” Bates said.
Like literacy, a high school level education is a critical asset that enables citizens to positively influence their communities. Housed in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education, the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N) helps keep students in the classroom by developing and sharing strategies, resources and research with educators in South Carolina and across the U.S.
“Increased numbers of high school graduates improve local and state economies, as well as the quality of life in individual communities,” said Sandy Addis, NDPC/N director. “We are the nation’s go-to resource for graduation rate improvement information, tools, strategies and innovations.”
In just one day, as many as 2,400 educators from across the nation visit the NDPC/N website seeking information that will help them best serve students. Policymakers across the nation also use the organization’s groundbreaking studies to allocate scarce resources and achieve effective graduation rate outcomes.
“Improving the nation’s high school graduation rate is critically important to our future and to the future of next generations,” Addis said. “We can’t fail in that effort.”
EQUITY THROUGH EDUCATORS
Improving education in South Carolina doesn’t always start with K-12 students. Under the direction of Angela Rogers, the Moore Scholars undergraduate program prepares a select group of Clemson education majors for the challenges inherent to teaching in underserved schools and impoverished communities — particularly those located on the I-95 Corridor.
“Many education programs focus on children in urban areas, but, here, we focus on rural kids — it’s a completely different challenge,” said Ringer, who spent the intensive teaching week at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School.
In Bamberg, the Moore Scholars took an unconventional approach to connecting with their students. Each night, Ringer and her classmates collaborated to create lesson plans for 90-minute literature classes, surveying classic poets like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou as well as emerging trends like spoken word. At the end of the week, the Bamberg students were asked to write their own poems and were invited to share them at an open-mic night in the school cafeteria.
“By the end of the week, we had kids write about the deepest subjects — there’s a lot of pain in this community,” Ringer said. “We gave them the tools and the background, but they added creativity and embraced what was in their hearts.”
After graduation, Ringer plans to bring the invaluable lessons she’s learned at Clemson back home to the Lowcountry corridor.
“Teachers don’t just teach reading and writing. We have the opportunity to teach kids that they can make something of themselves, regardless of where they come from,” Ringer said.
Like the Moore Scholars program, the Call Me MISTER® program prepares Clemson education majors for the challenges of teaching in underperforming schools and underserved communities. But, this program is unique in its focus on increasing the diversity of South Carolina’s educators.
Nearly two decades ago, Clemson Professor Emeritus Tom Parks noticed an astonishing lack of African-American male teachers in South Carolina — African-American men made up less than one percent of the state’s teaching workforce.
To change this, Parks partnered with a handful of South Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities to create a new initiative. The result was Call Me MISTER.
At Clemson, program participants are challenged to foster open dialogues in addition to their standard coursework. Upon graduation, the Misters enter South Carolina public schools with a unique insight that enables them to respond to the circumstances that challenge students’ ability to be successful — both inside and outside the classroom.
“We are committed to producing high-caliber, culturally competent educators with an abiding belief in the innate capacity of all students to be successful,” said Winston Holton, the program’s field coordinator. “Our Misters give these students the skills and tenacity necessary to ensure that they are.”
Many students who participate in the MISTER program come from communities that have felt the tangible effects of marginalization and disenfranchisement as a result of historically inequitable policies. This personal experience enhances each Mister’s ability to address the issues facing the disadvantaged children they will one day teach.
“The Misters have an understanding of the challenges these families face that exists beyond the formalistic and theoretical,” Holton said. “This program is the fuel that powers transformational leadership.”
Since its inception, Call Me MISTER has experienced tremendous growth, expanding to 20 colleges and universities within South Carolina. Through their hard work, the Misters and their mentors have shaped a new statistic — one that the Palmetto State can take pride in.
The number of African-American males teaching in the South Carolina’s public elementary schools has increased by 50 percent.
Diversity in education also includes diverse curriculum initiatives. That’s why professors Danielle Herro and Cassie Quigley have stepped up to co-direct the STEAM Collective, a group for researchers and teachers who want to revolutionize the ways children learn and integrate their knowledge.
STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The group focuses on providing an interdisciplinary educational model that emphasizes inquiry, education and research in a technology enhanced environment. They call these learning spaces “ecosystems” because they rely on a collective effort to improve student experiences.
“STEAM activities embed 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, problem-solving and creativity as students work in teams to investigate problems and propose solutions,” Herro said. “Developing capable students to fill jobs that will drive South Carolina’s economy and make smart decisions about the health of our society is important.”
Last year at Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School, a STEAM school in nearby Greenville, S.C., teachers asked students to explore why sea turtles along South Carolina coasts were dying and sea turtle live births were declining.
Students investigated environmental obstacles, like wind speeds and currents, and examined the significance of sea turtles in Native American cultures. They wrote reflections and created artwork to express feelings evoked by changing surroundings and migration; additionally, they developed a video game that demonstrated those changing migration patterns.
As a conclusion to their project, students engineered their own sea turtle model at the Greenville Zoo for National Oceans Day.
Within South Carolina, there are only a handful of STEAM-certified schools, but Clemson faculty want to see this holistic approach adopted all over the state. In order to facilitate development of these ecosystems, Clemson offers a four-course certification sequence; moreover, Herro and Quigley assist these schools as they transition.
PARTNERS FOR THE FUTURE
For the most part, improved education won’t change South Carolina’s problems overnight. And Clemson’s efforts to make the South Carolina education system stronger won’t eradicate its flaws immediately. But the Eugene T. Moore School of Education faculty and staff are committed to a long-term vision of an improved Palmetto State.
“I think in 10 years, education will be partnering with families, businesses and government to have conversations that look and work across disciplines to address complex issues,” Dean Petersen said. “There are so many dynamics within the state that will impact where education finds itself.”
Whatever elements influence education in the future, Petersen and his colleagues hope that students are viewed and educated holistically. For each program, staff and faculty emphasize the levels of success necessary to help students reach their goals and navigate complex systems.
“There is a level of dignity you receive from these programs, and we want that for all South Carolina students.” Petersen added, “We want to see a transformation in student’s professional and personal capacity. Through education they can live successful and impactful lives.”