CONWAY — Jean Burden is the personification of excitement when she talks about her new job as a 7th grade teacher at Whittemore Park Middle School.
Although she remains in her seat with her arms on the table in front of her, as she talks you get a picture of her jumping up and down and enthusiastically flailing her arms when she talks about what a grant from Bill and Melinda Gates will mean to students. Whittemore Park is just one of six middle and high schools nationally to be chosen.
“It says to the children they matter,” Burden says. “It says somebody thinks you’re important and they want to invest in you.”
That’s a new thing at Whittemore Park, a school with a reputation as being full of kids from poor families who just can’t seem to learn. The school has never made the marks to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Burden was at Loris Middle School when it transformed from a poor-performing school to being recognized among the best statewide and nationally, and she’s expecting the same thing at Whittemore. She said people have asked her why she would go to a school with a less than stellar reputation, and she tells them it’s the anticipation of success that has her bouncing.
She said success accumulates like a snowball in the way that one excitement sticks to the one before it and one becomes two and two become a hundred.
With an initial $150,000 from a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, said new Whittemore principal Judy Beard, the school plans to reinvent middle school education.
She realizes it’s a lofty goal, but there are schools that are already doing one part of it and schools that are doing other parts of it, and the grant will allow Whittemore Park to be the school that puts it all together.
This was the last year for the challenge grants, and Whittemore Park is the only school in South Carolina to ever get one of the 65 grants that have been awarded across the country in the three phases of funding.
Central to the grant will be giving each Whittemore Park 6th grader his or her own laptop, and outfitting it with cutting-edge learning software that’s been proven to work.
“There’s so much for kids out there,” Beard says of the digital world, “and kids today are wired that way.”
Burden said computers at Loris Middle School allowed her to divide a class of 30 students in three groups, with her helping one group individually, while another group worked on computer lessons and and the third did projects.
Computers provide the interest that traditional classroom techniques can’t, Beard said. For instance, now students can file online book reviews and to rate them for others, a prospect that for them is exciting as opposed to the doldrum of writing book reports.
Whittemore Park has initiated Tech Tuesdays to help teach teachers on all the ways that technology can help them teach kids.
Beard acknowledges that she may be a small part of the school getting the grant. She was principal at Loris Middle when it went from a low-performing school to a designation as a national Blue Ribbon school. That success, which relied heavily on the use of computers, may have given an extra oomph to Whittemore’s application.
“We’re trying to really think out of the box to get students ready for jobs that haven’t been created yet,” Beard said.
Coastal Carolina University and Horry Georgetown Technical College will be a part of Whittemore’s grant in providing mentors for the middle school students and letting Whittemore students get a taste of college with visits to each campus. Additionally, Beard said, students also will visit Conway High School to prepare them for the transformation that happens when going from middle school to high school.
Importantly, the success of the programs Whittemore Park initiates will be assessed by the Riley Institure at Furman University, which has a reputation for measuring success of education programs in a meaningful way.
The challenge grant comes with benefits other than the $150,000 cash, said Beard and Beth Havens, director of innovation projects with Horry County Schools. For one, staff at schools that receive the grants get additional money to travel nationally to learn about and observe cutting-edge techniques they can incorporate in their own program. Additionally, equipment vendors have already contacted the school to court it as a site to showcase their products. And perhaps most importantly, other grant funders look more seriously at schools that receive one of the Gates Foundation grants.
Havens said the announcement of the challenge grant already has school district officials feeling they may have gotten a boost in their quest for a $9 million Race to the Top district grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Beard said she traveled to a Charlotte-area school that made a name for itself for innovation while she was principal at Loris Middle and was there with educators from around the world who also wanted to soak up the knowledge. She’s expecting the same thing to happen at Whittemore.
The Whittemore program further will help a consortium of Conway-area schools that are working together to help students not only excel in all grades, but also be prepared for the next step in their education.
The Whittemore program has been dubbed The iCAN Project by Whittemore and school district staff who wrote the grant application. The acronym stands for individualized, College and career readiness, Aspirations of students and Network of support.
Beard believes it is the prescription for the future of K-12 education.
And no one is a bigger supporter of the idea than Burden.
She saw during her time at Loris Middle School how computers can engage today’s students, allow teachers to individualize instruction for each student and give teachers the key tool they need to keep 25 to 30 students productive throughout each class period.
“We’re finally all on the same boat,” she said, “and we’re paddling in the same direction.”
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.