As the young boys around her munched on a snack of leafy vegetables that they themselves had grown, Nancy Myers - suntanned and smiling - scanned the edges of her community garden and recalled its previous state. “This lot was covered with liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia,” she explained. “It was a disaster. But here we are, three years later and now we have 61 adults and 60 children with their own plots - and an age span that runs from 5 to 95.”
I was visiting Nancy in her adopted hometown of Hartsville, South Carolina, and hearing about the community garden where a hand-selected group of at-risk boys have been spending two hours every week outside, under the sun, to tend the first thing in their entire lives that they could fully call their own. “They’re learning a lot about the natural world,” Nancy continued, the boys gathering around her feet like electric eels, their energy barely containable. “But this has gone way beyond gardening. What these boys need can’t be fulfilled by any one program.”
As it turns out, Nancy’s community garden is just one of the ways the adults of Hartsville (a community that describes itself as “The Little City with the Big Heart”) are helping to ensure that its youngest residents feel loved, challenged and supported. It’s an experiment that began over two years ago when an unlikely coalition - between the local schools superintendent, the president of a private college, the head of a statewide magnet high school, and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company - joined forces to reimagine Hartsville’s public school system for a changing world.
“I happen to believe that the biggest issue in this country today is education,” said Harris DeLoach, the recently retired CEO of Sonoco, a packaging-product manufacturing company that has operated out of Hartsville for more than a century. “And we thought we might just have a situation here that’s small enough that if we can get it right, folks might be able to learn something valuable and do something similar in their own communities.”
What they decided, as Coker College president Robert Wyatt explained, was that the only way to transform a school system is by tending to the full developmental needs of children - academic, social, emotional, ethical, linguistic, and physical. That meant training adults to recognize and meet those needs. It meant adopting a different sort of shared language in school - and a different range of program offerings out of school. It meant hugs as much as homework. And it meant finding the right outside partner for the work.
“When we started considering the challenges, we reviewed a range of partners and possibilities,” said Wyatt. “But we quickly realized that when it comes to schools, nobody understands child development or systems change better than James Comer.”
If you’ve been in education long enough, you know what Dr. Wyatt is talking about: Comer - a longtime professor of child psychiatry at Yale University - is one of the most consequential voices in the history of American education reform. Yet I’ve noticed something both interesting and disturbing over the past few years: most of the new people I meet who have dedicated their careers to improving American public education have never even heard of James Comer, or of his work.
That’s a major problem - especially when one considers that as recently as 2000, Dr. Comer oversaw a national network of hundreds of schools and districts, a multimillion-dollar budget, and a program that was consistently evaluated to be among the most effective models for comprehensive school reform.
The reasons for his retreat from public prominence - and for Hartsville’s decision to partner with him - will be the focus of my writing over the coming months. But in the meantime, one thing seems clear: what Dr. Comer and the citizens of Hartsville are setting out to accomplish represents the exception in modern school reform, not the norm. We know that children need to learn and develop in ways that extend beyond mere academics - and yet we continue to tolerate a national system of policies and incentives that act as if academic growth is the only valid measure of success.
The good news is that there are communities like Hartsville’s, and programs like Comer’s, that are actively working against this trend. What all of these efforts share at their core is a clearer picture of what children need, and how adults can meet those needs. And if you’re not sure what I mean, you’re in luck: the newest chapter in the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill offers the clearest visuals I’ve ever seen of what it really means to be a teacher - and what it takes to do it well.
As in Hartsville, the adults of Mission Hill understand that they teach children, not subjects. They believe that the ultimate measure of success is the holistic well-being of the children. And they recognize that meeting children where they are - intellectually, psychologically, physically - day in and day out requires not just content knowledge, but also a healthy dose of humility, collaboration, and love.
See for yourself - and spread the word.
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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.