Can A Community Really Change the Fortunes of a Generation Through Its Schools?

Posted by Sam Chaltain on

Last January, in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, Harris Deloach – sixty-eight, white, and a South Carolina-raised Fortune 500 company executive; and James Comer – seventy-eight, black, and an Indiana-raised child psychiatrist – sat down for dinner.

Ostensibly, the topic of conversation was a five million dollar project they’d launched together three years earlier, shortly after Deloach had traveled north via private jet to determine if a Yale professor he’d never met was the right person to help him make Hartsville’s public school system the best in the state – and, eventually, the best in the country.  But just underneath the surface lay unresolved questions about each man’s legacy, and the extent to which their personal aspirations had become professionally intertwined.

The two arrived separately, each parking in a boggy field next to the eatery named after a nearby creek that had, centuries ago, marked the home base of the Pee Dee Indians, and then, beginning in 1817, inspired Captain Thomas Hart, the town’s namesake, to buy 500 acres of surrounding land, purchase hundreds of African slaves, and make a fortune growing cotton and raising cattle.

Like a lot of South Carolina, Hartsville is a rural community, about two hours from any city you’ve heard of. If you travel there via Highway 151, as I did repeatedly over the course of the 2013-2014 school year, a two-lane road will twist you past asymmetrical arrangements of single-wide trailers, cotton fields, and abandoned businesses whose shells sit eroding and untouched – like husks. Once you reach Hartsville, the highway turns into Fourth Street, and the terrain shifts. Now you see the manicured lawns of Coker College and its elegant central quad; Kalmia Gardens, the original house of Thomas Hart – built by slaves, and featuring the ornate woodwork of a central mantel that Hart finished himself; and the exclusive properties on Home Avenue, with their wide porches, carpety front lawns and six- or seven-figure price tags.

Here in Hartsville proper, there are less than eight thousand residents, evenly divided between black and white, and unevenly distributed across both social class and five square miles in an arbitrary maze of winding streets and subdivisions. In such a community, many of the trendiest national strategies for school reform – from charter schools to online learning – simply aren’t viable; transportation costs alone circumscribe the choices many rural families can make, and many residents still have no Internet access.

In a town like Hartsville, if you want to change the schools, you are going to have to do it from within the traditional systems and structures – from neighborhood schools to school boards to local politicians angling for re-election — no matter how change-averse those actors and institutions tend to be.

At this moment of intense national interest in public education, you would think figuring out how to improve the systems we already have would matter a lot more than it does, if for no other reason than because renovating a house is more cost-efficient than razing it and starting from scratch. But the particular challenges and opportunities associated with reform in rural schools matter for another reason – those schools house nearly ten million American students, or slightly more than 20% of the nation’s total enrollment. And yet, as a recent report of the Rural School and Community Trust made clear, “the invisibility of rural education persists in many states. Many rural students are largely invisible to state policy makers because they live in states where education policy is dominated by highly visible urban problems.”

In some ways, however, Hartsville is not an average American town. For starters, it has big-city resources: it is home to Deloach’s company, Sonoco, a $6 billion paper manufacturing company that has been headquartered there since 1899; it is home to a private college, Coker, that has been conferring degrees since 1908; and it is the site of the state’s highly-selective Governor’s School for Science and Math, where 80% of the faculty has PhD’s, and where South Carolina’s best and brightest teenagers spend their final two years of high school on a modern campus just off the town’s main street. This constellation of resources means not just a high degree of white-collar jobs, but also a high level of educational attainment among Hartsville’s rural residents, and a highly talented pool of people to pull from. 

Hartsville has big-city problems as well. Its crime rate is three times the state average. One-fifth of its residents live below the poverty line, in neighborhoods like the ominously titled Little Hades. And whereas its nickname in certain parts of town is “the little town with the big heart,” other people know it simply as “Killerville.”

Like a lot of communities, Hartsville’s public schools are increasingly the only place where those two worlds intersect in any meaningful way. And by January 2014, Harris Deloach had already seen more than two full school years pass – and more than two million dollars of his company’s money get spent – since announcing the project he had decided to name PULSE: Partners for Unparalleled Local Scholastic Excellence.

As he neared retirement, Deloach hoped the PULSE project would become his most lasting contribution to the community – a model of what the private and social sectors could accomplish together. Recently, he’d been asked to choose a defining quote for the sculpture outside Sonoco’s headquarters, the one that featured a single engraved plaque for each of Sonoco’s former chief executives. Unlike his predecessors, Deloach’s quote had nothing to do with business; it was all about public schools.

We believe it is our responsibility to build the community as we build our business. Our desire is to help schools impart academic excellence on our students as they become the workforce of the future. It is absolutely critical to the success of this country and our company that every child, regardless of economic status, leaves the public school system with the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

As they sat down to dinner, it was clear that PULSE’s progress after two years was opaque – and that Deloach was starting to worry about the pace of reform. “We’re at a critical moment,” he began, just as the waiter arrived to take a drink order. “I’m not the most patient person in the world, but I realize we’re talking about long-term change, and that it doesn’t happen overnight. Still, we need to determine if the needle of the nose is pointing up, neutral, or down. And we need to assess this all honestly – like a business. We won’t throw good money after bad money forever – and we are at that point where we need to start making an assessment. It never goes as quickly as you want – but you’ve always got to see progress.”

Comer shifted in his seat. Not that long ago, his organization had worked with hundreds of schools, employed a staff of eighty, and profited from a reputation as perhaps the most promising comprehensive reform model in American public education. By 2014, however, Comer’s national network had been whittled down to just two communities – the schools surrounding Yale’s campus in New Haven, in which his organization, the School Development Program (SDP), had worked for more than forty years; and the elementary schools he was now working with, at Deloach’s invitation, in Hartsville. Only four of the previous eighty staff members remained, including himself. And whereas Dr. Comer’s voice on questions of American school reform was once viewed as essential, it was increasingly drowned out by a new wave of public personalities, each of whom seemed to thrive on being more strident, more social-media-savvy, and more sensational than the next – and most of whom had never even heard of James Comer. For him, then, the PULSE project was more than just an exciting new opportunity; it was perhaps his last big chance to prove the essentialness of his work.

“I believe what we’re doing in Hartsville is still a story of what a team of people can do to make a difference,” Deloach added encouragingly, while Comer nodded. “Are we there yet? No. Are we on the right path? I hope we are. But will we change course if we need to?

“Yes we will.”


* * *


Together, these men and scores of other adults across Hartsville are hoping its public schools can become a model for all schools across the country – not just by preventing kids from dropping out, but also by inspiring them to aspire to the highest levels of success.

But in a town with equal numbers of privileged and poor, and at a time of unprecedented change and upheaval, how do you change the life trajectories of a generation of young people? And how do you reimagine the structure and purpose of public education without also asking, in the end, how many of the life circumstances children struggle with lie just beyond the school’s well-intended reach?

In 180 Days: Hartsville, viewers will experience a year in the life of one Southern town’s efforts to systemically address the root causes of inequality, and watch what happens when the systems that can either fuel or diffuse that inequality interact and intersect. Is Hartsville an anomaly, or do its early successes point towards some universally applicable (and sustainable) solutions? Can a community really change the fortunes of a generation by doubling down on its neighborhood schools? And does the stark reality of the 21st century global economy outweigh the impact of one rural town’s efforts to prepare its children to compete in that economy?

Check your local PBS station to find out when to tune in. And click here to read other articles about Hartsville’s comprehensive reform efforts.

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