New Promise in a Historic Rural High School Through Project-Based Learning

This is Part 3 of the three-part blog series about AYPF’s recent study tour to South Carolina, “Advancing Equity through Deeper Learning in Rural Schools: The Journey of School Transformation.”

Alan Richard

It had been about 10 years since I’d visited Scott’s Branch High School in the tiny town of Summerton on South Carolina’s vast coastal plain near Interstate 95.

While I’d enjoyed my visits to this historic place as a writer, I’d also had to ask questions about the school’s low test scores at that time and racial segregation in the community. Educators years ago had grown weary of my questions and seemed weighed down by their own local history, and America’s.

So I was thrilled to find a much-improved school upon my return to Scott’s Branch in February 2017, tagging along with a busload of visiting educators and policymakers from across the country. This visit, arranged by the American Youth Policy Forum, was to examine Scott’s Branch’s school improvement model, part of a national program called the New Tech Network.

New Tech describes itself as a “design partner” to schools, and provides intensive professional development and support for teachers and school leaders and helps them shift to “project-based learning” in almost every course. It also aims to help students master “21st Century skills” such as teamwork, public speaking, and greater responsibility for their own learning. Teachers become learning facilitators rather than lecturers or homework-checkers.

Scott’s Branch High School Principal Dr. Gwendolyn Harris, at right, welcomes the AYPF visitors to her school, including New Tech Network CEO Lydia Dobins, at left.

The strategy, which educators in Summerton described as more of a process than a program, has helped Scott’s Branch to improve teaching and learning and earn the state’s gold and silver awards for improvement.

“It has changed the culture of the school,” said the principal, Dr. Gwendolyn Harris, who had her doubts about New Tech at first. But over time, the differences in how students learn were obvious. “I saw students taking initiative. I saw teachers less stressed,” she said.

“It’s just great teaching,” Harris said of the New Tech model. Incorporating the kinds of skills needed in today’s workplaces into academic classes “just made sense because it’s what they’re going to do when they get out of school.”

It was right there in Clarendon County, where the school desegregation movement in the United States was born. Parents of Scott’s Branch students in the 1940s challenged the separate and (desperately) unequal educational opportunities of the era, and their federal court case was the first of the five that together became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawed racial segregation of schools.

Racial segregation continues to plague Scott’s Branch and hundreds of other communities across the South, where small private schools that opened in response to enforcement of the Brown decision continue to enroll almost every student from white families. Most black students, who form the majority and mostly come from poor families, attend the public schools.

Students at Scott’s Branch High School discuss how project-based learning works in their classes.

Scott’s Branch’s other challenges are like those in many rural schools—especially in the poorest parts of the Great Plains, native lands in the West, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and more. These are the regions upon which the Rural School and Community Trust, the nonprofit organization for which I serve as the board chair, focuses its work. (The Trust soon will release its newest version of its 50-state report on rural education, Why Rural Matters.)

During our visit in February, students in Mr. Tommy Hall’s social studies class were huddled in small groups for a school-wide project, developing their own digital textbook on Clarendon County’s history. Students flipped through digital slides on a TV screen of historical figures, including Harry and Eliza Briggs, the lead plaintiffs in the Briggs v. Elliott case that led directly to Brown. Students chose photographs to include in the online textbook and classroom presentations. They used rubrics to evaluate each other’s teamwork skills and contributions to the project.

“I love project-based learning. It makes you think,” said student DeAndre’ Brown, a 10th grader, as he and a couple of classmates showed off a Myrtle Beach tourism webpage they’d built, learning digital code and project management skills.

“The hands-on learning, that’s something that can help a lot of kids … especially in science,” senior Robert Matterson, who wants to study aerospace at Tuskegee University in Alabama and maybe enter the military, said of the project-based approach. “Once they actually do it themselves, it stays with them forever.”

Sophomore Sarah Middleton confessed that in years past, she had considered school “a waste of half a day.” Now she loves technology and is interested in real estate. “You never know what you’re capable of,” she added.

Even with the improvement, Scott’s Branch still faces plenty of challenges. Many rural schools can’t pay as well as their urban and suburban peers, and educator turnover and supply is a major hurdle.

“This school is still very much on the journey” of improvement, said Kristin Cuilla, the Senior Director of Partnerships and Communication for the New Tech Network, who lives in North Carolina and was a guide on the AYPF trip. “Some classes are still in transition, some are in project-based learning all the time.”

The next day of our AYPF trip, we headed to Colleton County High School, 50 miles southwest of Summerton, in the larger town of Walterboro, S.C. The school has implemented New Tech’s project-based model in a portion of its campus—one of its career academies—and now is adding it to another. The school seems further along than Scott’s Branch in implementing New Tech’s strategies. Students there also were impressive, and as communicative, excited about learning, and had as high aspirations as any students I’ve ever met.

When rural students like those we met in South Carolina are offered the kinds of educational experiences we all want for our children, they often excel. In fact, they can make history.

(Alan Richard is an education writer based in the Washington, D.C. area, formerly of Education Week and the Southern Regional Education Board, and occasionally contributes to the Hechinger Report. On Twitter: @educationalan.)


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.