Darlington School District. 81% poverty. 12th best district in SC. Why? No excuses, and people over programs

I attended an annual planning meeting of the SC Education Oversight Committee on August 8, 2011. There I met the superintendent of the Darlington County School District, Dr. Rainey Knight.

Let's first define a term. The "Poverty Index" includes students who are eligible for the free and reduced price Federal lunch program and/or Medicaid.

Based on the 2010 SC Annual SC Annual School District Report Card, Darlington is the 12th best performing out of 85 school districts in the state. On a 5 point scale, Darlington is a 4, performing similar to Richland 2 (53% poverty index) and Dorchester 2 (56% poverty index). Darlington's performance is blowing away districts with a performance of 3 like Greenville (58% poverty index) and York 3 (61% poverty index).

Here is the deal though. The poverty index in Darlington is 81%. Wow! Darlington is performing significantly better than districts whose poverty index is 20 percentage points lower. Mind you this is not the exceptional performance of just one school with high poverty. This is the exceptional performance of an entire district of schools with high poverty.

Why? When you meet Dr. Knight, there isn't much doubt. Every high performance organization I have ever seen had a very strong culture of excellence. That is what Dr. Knight has created in the Darlington public schools.

Dr. Knight discussed how important continuity of leadership is. She is in her 11th year in Darlington. She emphasized that success for her is people, not programs. She discussed a number of innovative programs in Darlington, but the most important key is the people implementing them. It takes time to build a high performance team. Not every decision she makes is popular, especially tough personnel decisions, and she has the strong support of her school board.

She has a strong "no excuses" attitude. Yes many of her students have significant challenges. Yes it does require extra support to help them overcome some of these challenges. But there are no excuses for children not to learn. Interestingly, many who oppose school reform, like Furman professor Paul Thomas criticize "no excuse" cultures. Thomas said, "We should not be contemplating for whom “no excuses” schools are appropriate because “no excuses” schools are not appropriate for any children in a free society." Dr. Thomas needs to take that up with Dr. Knight. I know whose team I'm betting. In a free society Dr. Knight's kids will leave Dr. Thomas' kids in the dust.

Dr. Knight said she is very competitive, having formally been a coach. She analyzes her district's performance, and she knows which districts are just ahead and just behind her. Plenty of people like Thomas who make excuses for the state of public education say competition won't improve public schools. So much for that theory.

At the same time, Dr. Knight said she finds out what districts that perform better than hers are doing by going to visit them. She entertains visits from those who want to study good things happening in Darlington. So healthy competition that spurs Dr. Knight and her team to improve hasn't devolved to a dysfunctional level. At the end of the day we can't lose sight that this is about educating children, and we're all still in this together.

Many of us, me included, are frustrated with the quality of public education overall. We too often paint the performance of all public schools with the same brush. The are great examples of public schools, and in the case of Darlington entire school districts, performing much better than would be expected given the children they serve. We need to face the brutal facts of reality when it comes to public education. But we also need to celebrate success.

Let's focus on the bright spots and go do more of that. The Darlington County School District is clearly a bright spot.

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