Hartsville Celebrates Great Start to Comer SDP Pilot

Over two hundred teachers, administrators, support staff, business and civic leaders came together on the Coker College campus on May 23, 2012 to celebrate the first year of Comer School Development Program (SDP) implementation in four Darlington County schools in Hartsville, South Carolina. The celebration included a luncheon, a keynote speech by Dr. James P. Comer, and presentations of their accomplishments by Southside Early Childhood Center, Thornwell School for the Arts, and Washington Street and West Hartsville Elementary Schools.

Dr. Susan Henderson, director of the Wiggins School of Education, welcomed the audience to Coker College, one of the four organizations in the P.U.L.S.E initiative, a unique public-private partnership funded by the TEACH Foundation, with a five-year, $5 million grant from Sonoco Products Company. TEACH board president Charlie Hupfer thanked the participants for “making the Hartsville community a better place to live and work” and for “giving Hartsville children the opportunity to have the kind of education they will need to compete effectively in the 21st century."

Before introducing Dr. Comer, Dr. Rainey Knight, superintendent of the Darlington County School District, presented Tara King with flowers and commended her for hr outstanding work as the District’s Comer Facilitator. Last May Dr. Knight selected Tara to lead the implementation of the Comer Process in the four pilot schools in Hartsville.

Dr. Comer greeted the audience as “friends of children all,” then described how the School Development Program became involved with the Hartsville community. In October 2010 a group of education and business leaders came to the Yale Child Study Center to meet with him to discuss their shared vision for improving Hartsville’s schools. The group included Dr. Knight, Harris E. DeLoach, Jr., Sonoco’s CEO and chairman, Dr. Robert Wyatt, president of Coker College, Dr. Murray Brockman, president of the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, and Roger Schrum, vice president for investor relations at Sonoco.

“When I listened to Mr. DeLoach talk, it was clear that having a well-trained workforce was an important motivation. He also said something that I will never forget, ‘It’s just right that all of the children get an education that would prepare them to function well.’” Dr. Comer recalled another memorable moment in that first meeting. After listening to a description of the School Development Program, Dr. Knight said, “I see what you’re trying to do. You’ve pulled all the pieces together. You’re giving the kids middle class skills necessary to function well in society.”

“That was the first time I had ever heard anybody on the first description of the program grasp what it was about, the essence of it so completely.” He said that he wasn’t surprised when he learned that Dr. Knight was named the 2013 South Carolina Superintendent of the Year. “After that first conversation I had a sense that this was a community that could put a program together that supported the culture that would allow all the children to develop and learn well.”

A Small Town With a Big Heart

In November 2010 he and Camille Cooper, the SDP’s director of Teaching, Learning and Development, went to Hartsville to meet with teachers, administrators, and members of the Darlington County school board. During a tour of Thornwell School for the Arts, Dr. Comer experienced firsthand the depth of the community’s commitment to children. There he saw the community clothing closet run by Carolina Kids, LLC, a nonprofit started by Dr. Abraham and Daphne Areephanthu. “It looked like a department store,” said Dr. Comer. “I thought to myself that there has to be the kind of empathy and commitment to all the children that you don’t see in a lot of places. I was sure that this is a community that could make a big difference.”

Dr. Comer said that throughout the 2011-12 school year he heard many exciting stories from Camille Cooper who is leading the SDP’s implementation work in Hartsville. He had watched video interviews that I had conducted with teachers, administrators, other school staff, parents, and community leaders. The most touching and powerful story for Dr. Comer involved a young child who had been brought to Hartsville to live with a relative by two social workers from the Connecticut Department of Social Services. She was enrolled in a Hartsville Comer school at the end of January 2012. “The description of the child’s turnaround in several months in a caring, supportive environment really blew me away. You have demonstrated that children in a caring environment can do well. Your plans to sustain that child’s development are very well thought out.”

What made the child’s story even more compelling was that Dr. Comer has been talking with Roderick Bremby, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Social Services, about providing marginalized children in the state with developmental experiences in caring learning environments that can make it possible for them to bounce back from challenging situations.

“Thank you very much for providing the evidence on the ground that we can make a difference for all children. It’s always wonderful to see the abstract theory jump off the pages and be expressed in practice, and that’s what I feel has happened here. I can hear it and feel it and see it in the spirit and discussion of everybody. There’s a wonderful excitement and enthusiasm.”

After Dr. Comer spoke, participants attended presentations by each the four Hartsville Comer schools on how they had put Dr. Comer’s ideas into practice. They also had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Comer in the Coker College Library atrium where each school had set up a display highlighting first-year activities and accomplishments.

Rondelle Wheeler, a teacher who is in the first cohort of Hartsville educators trained in the Comer Process, spoke with Dr. Comer about the necessity of his program. She is one of the many educators who think that the SDP “just makes sense."

“I told Dr. Comer that I see each child from the perspective of the Comer Tree of Development, and when I am teaching and interacting with them I am consciously aware of which branches are being shaken, broken, rattled, stirred, missing, or developing and blossoming nicely. Many of my children's trees are so underdeveloped that it takes a caring, committed, Comer community to truly reach, teach, and develop the whole child.”

For Tara King and Camille Cooper, the year-end event was an opportunity to celebrate a great beginning and to get a glimpse of possibilities in the second year of the Comer SDP in Hartsville. “Seeing all of the constituents of the Comer schools come together to share their experiences and support each other was quite impressive,” said Camille. “School board members, food service workers, community members, teachers, administrators, custodians, Coker College faculty, and others recognizing their role in supporting the development of the children in the Comer schools signals the beginning of positive change.”

“Our kids fuel us each day to strive for the best,” said Tara. “What I observed this year were people striving for excellence not only for our children, but for themselves, our families, and our community. There was a mindset shift and a refocus on putting children's best interest first. We were able to do exactly what we believe in: developing children."

Bonnie Saleeby, chairperson of the West Hartsville School Planning and Management Team said, "I really hope that we can continue to do a program like this at the end of the each year. I was able to pick up ideas that could be used at our school for next year. It was really amazing to see the different ways the Comer Pathways were incorporated at each school."

Reflections on the First Year of Comer SDP Implementation

Dr. Rainey Knight, Superintendent, Darlington County School District

The Comer SDP has created high levels of excitement and expectations in our schools that you can't help but feel when you walk into one of our Comer schools. Parents are more involved, students are more engaged, and our teachers are re-energized and refocused. I have been very pleased with the progress we've made the first year, and I can't wait to see what we can accomplish next year.

Harris E. DeLoach, Jr., CEO and Chairman, Sonoco Products Company

The first year of the Hartsville PULSE program far exceeded our expectations. The Comer principles were embraced by the nearly 1,400 targeted elementary students, teachers, administrators, parents, and mentors during the school year. Thanks to Yale University's School Development Program, Hartsville's elementary students are on their way to accelerated academic performance and personal development that will further enrich education in our hometown.

Dr. Willie Boyd, Sr., Assistant Superintendent for Administration, Darlington County School District

We are pleased that this program has gotten off to an exciting and productive start. The 'village' is truly at work.

Dr. Susan D. Henderson, Director, Wiggins School of Education, Coker College

What a delight it was for Coker College to host the end-of-year celebration for the implementation of the Comer School Development Program. It was an exciting afternoon not only to celebrate the first-year successes of the four Hartsville Comer schools, but also to look forward to the next years as well. It is truly a pleasure to collaborate with Tara King and the Darlington County School District on this exciting initiative.

Charlie Hufer, President, TEACH Foundation Board of Directors

It seems clear to us (the TEACH Foundation) that PULSE is meeting with some early success. Furthermore, it seems to us that success can only breed more success as each year these programs develop and mature. So we are very pleased at this stage in the process.

Sharman Poplava, Executive Director, TEACH Foundation

The teachers have been eager to share their stories and experiences. Dr. Comer's visit capped off a tremendous year. We look forward to building on our successes and continuing the momentum.

This article was submitted by Cynthia Savo on June 26, 2012.

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James Pierpont Comer

Maurice Falk Professor in the Child Study Center

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