As one of the highest-poverty school districts in South Carolina, Allendale County Schools has been in turmoil for two decades. The state’s Department of Education has taken control of the district twice since 1999 for a laundry list of reasons—most importantly, bleak academic performance.
During the second takeover in June 2017, the South Carolina superintendent declared a “state of emergency” in education. Three of the district's four schools were the worst performing in the state. Morale was low, teacher turnover was high and residents didn’t trust that Allendale could educate their students.
Then Dr. Margaret Gilmore stepped in to lead a district-wide overhaul, and suddenly the story changed—for the better.
Morale was low, teacher turnover was high and residents didn’t trust that Allendale could educate their students.
In a conversation with EdSurge, Gilmore—who became Allendale’s superintendent a year ago—discusses how she is turning around her district, and outlines her six-step instructional process that drives teacher and student success.
EdSurge: How did you know where to begin such an immense district overhaul?
Gilmore: We worked with AdvancED | Measured Progress to do a root cause analysis: in order to move the academic needle in this district, what do we need to accomplish? We observed classrooms and interviewed all stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, the community, principals, district office staff.
In the end, we came up with four goals that, if implemented, would turn the district around: increase student achievement; recruit and retain highly effective teachers and leaders; develop a collaborative partnership between the school district and the community; create a positive and trusting culture and climate. And we went for it.
What are some specific steps you’ve taken to improve teaching and learning?
One of the improvement priorities from AdvancED | Measured Progress was that the district needed a standard instructional process. We used the eleot (Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool) to take a snapshot of what was happening in classrooms. We saw classrooms weren’t engaging; teachers were teaching at low levels, and teachers weren’t checking for student understanding. As a result, students weren’t performing academically; teacher and student morale was low; there were a plethora of student behavior problems; and teacher-turnover was high.
Dr. Margaret Gilmore
Dr. Gilmore's Favorite Allendale Stories
So I developed the Allendale Six instructional process:
- bell to bell instruction
- performing formative assessments
- developing positive relationships
- standards-based instruction
- well-managed classrooms
- student-centered instruction
We’re using them to improve instruction across the district.
What did implementing the Allendale Six look like?
It took a lot of tough work. We developed a district-wide protocol where for each lesson, teachers had to write the state standard, the learning target, the essential question and the assessments they were going to use for the lesson. The curriculum, instruction, and assessment all had to be aligned. We developed a new lesson plan template for teachers to submit to their school administrators each week. Teachers didn’t love the idea initially, but if we wanted to raise the bar, we had to implement these things.
We posted behavior expectations on the wall in every classroom so students knew exactly what the consequences would be if they misbehaved in class.
And we went into classrooms and ensured teachers were implementing the Allendale Six. And when we walked in and saw that one of the Allendale Six were implemented with fidelity—students doing research on technology, peer collaboration, differentiating instruction to meet students' needs—we celebrated with gift cards donated by local businesses and teacher of the month awards.
How did you support your teachers?
We provided so much PD!
If instruction is on-point, it minimizes behavior issues because students are engaged and learning.
For example, we put our teachers on a school bus and drove them to the communities where our children were coming from. It was important to me that our teachers knew where our kids lived, how impoverished they were. When students come to our classrooms, teachers need to know the students’ stories. It was so emotional and such an eye-opener. All the teachers could say was, ‘I had no idea.’
We also offered PD to foster student-centered instruction. Now, teachers teach to a variety of learning styles, differentiate learning for our students with twice-weekly Response to Intervention time and give opportunities for student collaboration—such as STEM projects and our Spark literary and visual arts magazine.
We’re also a 1:1 district where every student has an iPad. Teachers use technology as a teaching tool and students use technology as a learning tool.
What kind of gains are you seeing?
This year has been so rewarding for us. There’s a direct correlation between teacher practice and student outcomes. If instruction is on-point, it minimizes behavior issues because students are engaged and learning.
We had three schools performing academically in the bottom five percent in the state—they were the lowest of the lowest. And this past year two of those schools came off the list! Our middle school and elementary school are no longer priority schools. Our high school went from the bottom five percent to the bottom ten percent—that’s improvement. And we are celebrating that our students are growing academically.
These improvements are because of the many changes we’ve made: the new instructional process, holding Response to Intervention time twice a week, job-embedded teacher professional development, professional learning communities, celebrating teachers, students and staff, and working with our community—just a plethora of things.
Do any individual stories of success stand out?
There are so many individual student stories. There’s eleventh-grader Savannah who was accepted to spend her summer at Princeton; she’s an incredible writer. There’s twelfth-grader Chelsea, an emerging scholar raised by her great-grandmother and grandmother. She has a 4.0 grade point average and is going to Clemson University on a full ride. She is an incredible young lady who is poised and disciplined—but wasn’t always like that.
What are your goals for Allendale going forward?
We’re going to go from the bottom to the top.
We continue to improve in best practices, enhancing our knowledge in how to be highly effective principals, assistant principals and teachers by engaging in professional development and looking at our data on a daily basis. It’s all about continuous improvement.
I want to be a turnaround school district where people from all over the country come to learn about Allendale’s story. I want to transform from a school district that was at the bottom in the state to one of the top school districts in the state—one where you can see success in our test scores, teacher evaluations, our culture and climate and even in our community.
We’re going to go from the bottom to the top.
Go Tigers! Check out the incredible gains Allendale high school students made in their end of course exams:
- Algebra 1 — In 2018, 19.8% of students passed; in 2019, 64.5% passed
- Biology — In 2018, 0% of students passed; in 2019, 43% passed
- English 1 — In 2018, 46% of students passed; in 2019, 70% passed
- US History — In 2018, 19% of students passed; in 2019, 53% passed