Skip to Content


Creating a Corridor of Innovation:
Changing the Equations of Success in Rural, High Need Schools
Courtenay L. Nantz, September 2016

More than seventy years ago, at a little school in the heart of the cotton belt, poor rural African Americans demanded a better way for their children. For black students in Clarendon County, South Carolina, who had no bus transportation, getting to school sometimes involved a walk as long as nine miles each way. They asked for a school bus, yet the county denied their request. With the help of Thurgood Marshall, at great risk to their jobs and their families' safety, they raised the stakes and demanded an end to legalized public school segregation. Briggs v. Elliott was the first of five court cases filed in the United States District Court to be combined to become Brown vs. Board of Education. The year was 1950 and that little school was Scott's Branch High School.

Despite the Supreme Court's 1954 unanimous ruling to desegregate schools "with all deliberate speed," South Carolina's school officials and state politicians avoided any desegregation of the public school system until 1963. At that time, as was the case in many areas in the South that had a deep-rooted history of segregation, almost all white Clarendon County families removed their children from the newly integrated schools. Today, Clarendon County remains one of many rural South Carolina communities that make up some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in America. Scott's Branch High School has one of the highest poverty ratings in the nation, and 99% of its student population is African American.

Fast forward to 2008. Former United States Secretary of Education (1993-2001) and South Carolina Governor (1979-1987), Richard W. (Dick) Riley, paid a visit to Sacramento New Technology High School in California while serving as a member of the board of directors at KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a nonprofit organization  that delivers innovative education approaches and works to advance policies to support communities as they build and sustain thriving learning environments. New Tech Network, a design partner for comprehensive school change, was then a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, and New Technology High School was and is their flagship school. Rooted in project-based learning, immersive technology, and a pervasive culture of trust, respect, and responsibility, the New Tech design connects lessons and projects to real-world situations and problems. Students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity, communication, and accountability in order for them to answer challenging questions and solve complex problems. Riley's excitement for the learning environment these students were experiencing was and remains a beacon for what is possible even for students at Scott's Branch and all over the nation.

Once Riley saw the New Tech design in action and its impact on the lives of students, he understood its potential to repair the damage to school systems brought by the past, and for many years championed bringing the design to South Carolina. To Riley, the namesake for the Richard W. Riley Institute at Furman University, which – in part – engages its statewide leadership network to address challenges critical to the state's progress, it was clear: the Riley Institute and KnowledgeWorks would partner with communities and schools along the Interstate 95 corridor in order to fundamentally reimagine education for public school students. These communities are in some of the most economically challenged areas in the state, where their struggle for adequate funding for education received national attention through the 2006 documentary "Corridor of Shame: the Neglect of South Carolina's Rural Schools," on the plight of the rural, high-minority populations of students along that stretch of Interstate highway.

Many such disproportionately low attaining, low income, economically underdeveloped rural communities are clustered along this stretch of Interstate highway. The residents of the 1-95 Corridor, with a high level of illiteracy and lack of technical and other twenty-first century skills, have not fared well in changing employment markets. Even as the lack of a skilled workforce creates a disincentive for new investment by business and industry, low skill jobs in agriculture and manufacturing have continued to decline. Unemployment is high and per capita income low. These cyclical educational, social and economic impacts have created a perfect storm of persistent failure for these rural communities.

Recognizing  the realities faced by students living in these areas – a dwindling tax base, crumbling facilities, and the historical and political reality of the systematic deprivation of a quality education for students in the Corridor – the partnership proposed a $2.9 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant that would convert two high needs rural schools into standards- and project-based learning (PBL)­ driven New Tech Network schools with a strong STEM focus, a collaborative online learning system, relevant and regular interaction with regional employers, with post-secondary success as a driving force. Additionally, the project would work to expand the design to other districts along the Corridor and throughout the state.

Scott's Branch High School in Summerton (Clarendon District One) and Cougar New Tech at Colleton County High School in Walterboro (Colleton County School District) opened their doors as the first two New Tech Network schools in South Carolina in the fall of 2013.

These two schools started with their ninth grade classes and added a grade each year until all four grades, 9-12, were utilizing the New Tech design. Scott's Branch, a small high school of roughly 190 students, underwent whole-school transformation, while Colleton County High School (1600 students) created a school-within-a-school. Since then eight more New Tech schools have opened in South Carolina- three in Greenville (Greenville ' County), two in Lake City (Florence District 3), one in Cayce (Lexington District 2), and one in Myrtle Beach (Horry County). Fall of 2016 brought the opening of the state's tenth New Tech Network school, in Fairfax (Allendale County), with additional districts planning to implement in 2017 and beyond.

While official results for the grant project will not be available until 2017, early external analyses (state data, teacher survey, on-site observations, analyzed by the team's evaluation partners at the University of Texas-Tyler) after the first and second years of implementation suggested very promising outcomes. Preliminary analysis after only one year of New Tech implementation  at Cougar New Tech and Scott' s Branch High School (2013-14) suggested that the New Tech design may already have had a positive effect, despite the fact that the design had only been in place one year at the time of analysis, and that the teachers were relatively inexperienced  in project based learning. In English/Language  Arts, the effect was positive for poor minorities, and in Math, the effect was positive for both poor and non-poor students, minority and white.

Second year results remained very positive overall. Regarding the 9th grade students, analyses suggested that there was a significant effect of the New Tech design on End of Course (EOC) scores. New Tech students scored higher on both the EOC Math and EOC English/Language  Arts tests compared to students in control schools. This effect remained after controlling for poverty, race, and preexisting achievement  level (8th grade PASS scores, the state assessment of standards).

One of the early and powerful success stories surrounds 2015 Biology EOC scores at Cougar New Tech in Walterboro. Of the 86 students in Ms. Holly Hughes's ninth grade biology class that year, 26 scored perfect 1OOs on the state biology test ... something that had never happened in the school district before. The average score for her three classes was 91, with 45 scores of 90 or better. The passage rate for New Tech biology students was 33 percentage points higher than their non-New Tech peers at the same school. Ms. Hughes credits the New Tech design with making curriculum more relevant for students: 'They can see how this ties into their everyday lives and they can see how the science plays out," she said in an interview with the Walterboro  Press and Standard newspaper  in November 2015. Cougar New Tech has also been designated already as a National Demonstration Site for the New Tech Network.

Results from New Tech Teacher Surveys from 2013-14 and 2014-15 suggest that, from the perspective of teachers, while the first-year workload is higher than traditional learning designs, the New Tech design is more effective than other ways of teaching used in the past. Responses indicate that it produces higher student grades, better student learning, more class participation, and increased student enthusiasm for course material. Teachers also report that it has improved engagement  of, and collaboration among, their students and that it has increased students' ability to apply or use information, ability to work in groups, interest in attending college after graduation and pursuit of college credit while in high school.

Third-year data will be released in 2016, and fourth year and final grant evaluation will be available in 2017.

These twenty-first century high schools are maximizing student success and opportunity through the acquisition of core knowledge and twenty-first century skills, and increasing students' postsecondary aspirations. Very soon we will have the opportunity to celebrate South Carolina's first graduating New Tech class and their plans for the future.

Every child – regardless of circumstances  outside a student's control such as place of birth, ethnicity, and socioeconomic  status – should receive a high-quality education that prepares them for life and work in the rapidly-changing environment of the 21st century. The KnowledgeWorks-Riley Institute partnership believes the New Tech design is a key to transforming the so-called "Corridor of Shame" into a "Corridor of Innovation" and will be transformative for students and their communities. As the on-the-ground South Carolina partner for the grant, the Riley Institute will continue to partner with the New Tech Network to expand throughout South Carolina as part of an intentional economic development strategy focused on preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.


The Riley Institute® at Furman University I