Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
August 18th, 2009

Transforming Education for the 21st Century – Part Two

In the last column I looked back at the history of K-12 education in the U.S.  This was to provide background and context for this and future columns.  I also mentioned in that last column that I was fortunate to participate in an exciting conference of people committed to creating the 21st century K-12 campus that took place in Columbia S.C.  How this conference came into being is a wonderful story.

[Regular readers will find this a distinct departure from the usual columns here.  This will be one of several columns about the creation of a task force to create the 21st Century Educational Campus for K-12.  As a futurist I am a catalyst to get people and businesses  to think about the future.  Most of the time, that means writing, advising and speaking to small and large groups of people.  In this case I have found an opportunity to lend that vision of the future to a group of committed people that want to and are in the process of creating it.  This task force has set its mission to define, design, create and manifest a 21st Century Educational Campus that could well become a model for the country.]

Great change almost always begins with someone or some small group of people taking action.  A few years ago, a documentary filmmaker, living in South Carolina, became outraged at the horrific state of schools in the poor rural part of the state. Bud Ferillo produced and directed a documentary entitled “Corridor of Shame” about the dilapidated conditions of K-12 schools along the Interstate 95 corridor of South Carolina.  This documentary aired state wide and caused great debate.  It also made its’ way into the hands of then candidate Barack Obama whose response was to have a campaign stop scheduled at one of the schools highlighted in the documentary.

Candidate Obama stopped at the JV Martin School and was appalled by what he saw.  Furniture that didn’t match and was 50 years old, a gym that had such a poor roof that it had to be closed whenever it rained, no heat so that students had to wear winter coats in the classroom, and since the school was right next to the railroad tracks, teachers had to stop teaching whenever a train passed by, shaking the school buildings.  Obama made a promise to come back and, if elected to create a better school for the Dillon community.

The JV Martin School had been targeted as a turnaround school by the Superintendent of Schools for South Carolina, Dr. Jim Rex.  He dispatched Amanda Burnette to spend two years at the school as Principal to upgrade the educational experience of the students. One day in early February 2009 Principal Burnette spoke at a school assembly delivering a motivation speech that every student has the opportunity to make a difference in the world.  The next day an eight grade student came into the office and asked Principal Burnette for $.42 cents.  Knowing the students were poor, she inquired as to why the student needed exactly that amount. Ty’Sheoma Bethea answered that she had written a letter to President Obama and needed the money to buy a stamp.

Principal Burnette went to work to help that letter get to the White House.  It made it to the President’s desk and, when President Obama delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress that eight grader, Ty’Sheoma Bethea was in the gallery sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama.  One girl who just wanted a chance to make something of herself, a committed principal dedicated to making that a reality and a President committed to creating educational opportunity for everyone had created a high profile moment.

The media immediately descended on the JV Martin School in Dillon and soon the entire country saw the intolerable conditions that existed.  Outrage prevailed for days and then the media moved on to something else.  Many people spoke about the deplorable reality of the school, but nothing really changed.  One man, however, thought that perhaps he and his company might be able to make a difference; Darryl Rosser, CEO of Sagus International

Sagus International is a company that manufactures school furniture for the K-12 marketplace.  In 2008 the company completely transformed itself from being just a manufacturer of furniture to a company committed to creating environments to improve learning outcomes.  A commitment was made to dedicate efforts to work with the best and brightest in the field of K-12 education to design the classroom of the future. The company had worked with two high schools in the Chicago Public School system to completely redo a classroom at each school based upon the specifications of a talented teacher.  With this project completed, Mr. Rosser was looking for the next opportunity to develop a better understanding of how furniture and classroom design could improve education.

[Full disclosure:  I have been consulting with Sagus International for a year on this effort to create the classroom for the 21st Century.  The reason I  mention Sagus is that it was through my association with Darryl and Sagus that I have become involved as part of a task force to create the 21st Century School.  Sagus certainly doesn’t need me for publicity given the rest of this story.]

Darryl Rosser went to visit the JV Martin School with the intention of doing what had been done in Chicago; to provide the makeover of a classroom.  He was appalled by what he saw.  He called me after his visit to the school and said:  “David, we just have to do something more than a classroom, I just can’t believe how bad it really is.”  Darryl mobilized his company, his local distributor many others and over the weekend of May 1-3, while the students were not in school, all the old mismatched and broken furniture was removed and sent off to be recycled.  In its place the school and the cafeteria was painted and new furniture installed at a cost of $250,000.  On Monday morning the students came into the regular Monday all school assembly   They were addressed by the local school superintendent Ray Rogers, Principal Burnette, Congressman John Spratt, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Jim Rex  and Rosser.  Then the students entered the classrooms and were stunned and giddily excited by what they found.  Footage of this can be seen here.

The publicity around this school transformation was such that it allowed Rosser and State School Superintendent Rex to convene some of the best minds in the country in the area of school design to come together for a two day symposium in Columbia the capitol of South Carolina in late July.  I was honored to be one of the speakers at the conference and will describe it in the next column.

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