Lessons for All of our Schools in SC
By Phil Noble
From the very beginning, you know this school is different: the young children bound out of the cars with excitement and run to hug the principal. He greets each student by name and then they scamper into the school building full of laughter and excitement.
Inside, the walls are crowded with lots of kids’ art work, pictures of students receiving awards, inspirational quotes from Steve Jobs and the likes and pennants from the teachers’ college hang outside every classroom door.
“Let’s start with kindergarten and work our way up,” says Dr. Harry Walker of Carolina Voyager Charter School in Charleston. He wears a gaudy tie with kids’ drawings of school busses and he doesn’t call himself principal but ‘School Leader’. He’s a slight, 60-something year old who has a warm face and a ready smile. I immediately liked him.
Inside the kindergarten class about two dozen kids are all standing around four big tables – each working on an iPad. They drew a squiggly pathway on a piece of paper and then transferred the design to the surface of their iPad by tracing the lines. At each junction point along the pathway, they move a colored coded block across the iPad and into the intersection to indicate a right turn, left turn or straight ahead. A ping pong ball size robot with flashing lights beeps as it moves along the pathway – and the kids can change the robots’ pathway as it goes.
Said more succinctly – these kindergartners are learning how to code software for a computer.
Each kid has their own iPad that they keep with them the whole school day and then take home so they can keep playing/learning after school. (They have never lost an iPad and damage has been minimal.) The students also have access to multiple Chromebooks that are available in every classroom.
In the next kindergarten class I visited, they were learning Spanish.
As we move through the other class rooms and grade levels, there were many variations but it was always the same – the kids were having fun learning, the teachers and teaching assistants (every classroom had both) are young and energetic, everything is colorful and bright (though the building is not new or especially modern) and the energy is palpable – just a few degrees this side of getting out of hand.
In short, it’s a bunch of kids and teachers all excited and energized about learning.
The Irish poet W. B. Yates famously said, “Education is not about filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” The fire station nearest this school needs to be on high alert.
After my tour, I sat down for a talk with Walker and a couple of teachers and here’s what I learned about the school:
- The school is in its third year and began with just 24 students; it now has 191 students in grades K-4 with an additional grade to be added each year until they get to 8th
- It is a public charter school of the Charleston County School District. There is no admissions test or requirements. All students are chosen by lottery and the racial mix is roughly 50/50 with a few Hispanic and Asian children added in.
- Their school day is one hour longer than most public schools; they begin at 7:40 and end at 3:40. They don’t have school busses so parents are responsible for dropping off and picking up their children.
Their strategy is “tech in everything, but not all the time.” They use technology focused on students’ exploration and creativity – and as a diagnostic tool to design an individual learning path for each student. But, the children only have about 90 minutes of screen time throughout the school day and they probably spend that much time again with their devices at home and over the weekend.
And, they are very selective in the technology that they do use. “We don’t use white boards,” said Dr. Walker. “They are very interactive for the teacher but for the students, it’s still kids sitting in rows watching the teacher at the front of the room – and they are very expensive.”
So, are these kids learning; what about test scores? Walker said that unlike many schools, they don’t really do any student preparation for tests. Too much testing and rigid process “suck all the life out of the kids and schools; we focus instead on joy and love – and we want it to go both ways between students and teachers.”
And lest one think the school is some sort of throwback to the days of hippie led education of the 60’s, Walker quickly adds that more than 80% of the students perform at or above grade level and test scores are way above the average for Charleston County and the state average.
Dr. Walker and his teachers believe that the technology is far less important than parents. His basic belief is that every parent wants the best for their children but many just don’t know what to do or how to do it. He strongly encourages what he calls ‘courageous conversations’ with parents about their children and what they need.
These courageous conversations with parents often involve the difficult issue of dealing with students’ social and emotional learning skills or lack thereof. The teachers agreed that these social and emotional skills are just as important to a child’s success as traditional academic skills.
Being relatively new to South Carolina from Maryland (he took a 40% pay cut), Walker said that he thinks there may be something in the culture of South Carolina that makes parents, especially minority parents, reluctant to ask for help. “There seems to be a basic lack of trust on the part of African American parents that the schools really care about their children.”
So, are there lessons of Voyager School that are relevant for other South Carolina schools? Yes, but just as no two students are alike, so too no two schools or communities are exactly alike. However, there seems to be three big takeaways from the Voyager experience that can be of value to schools all across the state.
- There are no silver bullets. As Dr. Walker and his teachers are quick to say, there is no silver bullet as no one size fits all for all students in all schools. This is why the tech enabled individual diagnostic tools and individual learning paths for each student are so important.
- Money is not the answer to all the problems, but a certain amount is necessary. Although iPads and Chromebooks sound expensive, they are really only a tiny fraction of what most schools have to spend, it is a question of priorities. Unfortunately, many schools in South Carolina, especially in rural areas, don’t even have what is required for “minimally adequate.”
- Don’t focus exclusively on academic attainment and test scores at the expense of parental involvement and social and emotional learning. At Voyager they believe that also focusing on parents and non-academic skills will result in more student driven learning which will ultimately be more effective and long lasting.
As for me, like the students, teachers and staff at Voyager, I had a lot of fun at this school and clearly they have proven that real learning can and should be fun.
And, as for the future of education in South Carolina, I’m betting on these kindergarten kids who are learning today how to speak Spanish and how to code.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association and several business magazines.