Three Charleston County educators collaborating

Bright Spots: Charleston County School District


Written by Laura Troxel & Adan Garcia

Bright Spots: Charleston County School District

Expanding Opportunity at Acceleration Schools

It was August 2019, and Charleston County School District (CCSD) was facing a unique challenge. For a couple of years, school ratings were on the rise, and while students were eager to learn, nearly half of students were struggling with math and reading. Leaders in CCSD’s central office realized something needed to change in order to meet the needs of its students in math and reading.

They arrived at the Acceleration Schools initiative, a comprehensive, multi-year school turnaround effort focused on serving Charleston’s most vulnerable schools. At these ten school sites, the district would work alongside staff, families, and the community to develop and support the whole child, creating the conditions that enable and inspire teachers and students to achieve their full potential. Leaders recognized they could use help to reorient instructional improvement efforts toward whole child aims, so CCSD partnered with our team at Leading Educators to revamp their curricula and teacher development.

Now, new data show that work is paying off.

  • Acceleration Schools saw significant improvement in math and ELA state assessments from 2021 to 2022 despite national declines in achievement seen across the country.
  • 78% of schools supported by Leading Educators in ELA surpassed their 2019 (pre-pandemic) state scores in 2022, maintaining progress through focused work on instruction.

What is it that allowed this progress to happen? We highlight how Acceleration Schools have taken a coherent approach to collective improvement and grown their ability for teachers and students to learn together.

Enabling Durable Systemic Change

As CCSD names in the Acceleration Schools Strategic Plan, sustainable improvement requires systemic action that is rooted in supportive conditions. The district states:

School systems must create conditions that enable and inspire teachers and students to achieve their full potential. When we fail to educate and dramatically change the trajectory and performance of students in high-need schools, we then need to assess our efforts. Our purpose is to disrupt existing practices in high-need schools to ensure sustainable success. To achieve lasting change, we must redesign how we support schools and commit to collaboration with schools and the community to solve our most critical challenges.”

school turnaround levers as icons

The Acceleration Schools present a unique opportunity to disrupt “quick fix” thinking and build a system for lasting change that can serve as a model for other schools in the district. Charleston tried curriculum adoption before, but previous PD opportunities and professional learning communities at the school level didn’t go as well as they had hoped. So, they wanted to think through how to create a more coherent and cohesive support system for teachers.

Over the 2021-2022 school year, we worked side by side with district staff to develop a longer-term curriculum adoption and professional learning strategy, a vision for excellent ELA and Mathematics instruction, and distributed leadership in Acceleration Schools.

Defining Success

To understand progress and continuously improve support, we and the partners have paid attention to six aspects of evaluation.

  1. Conditions: Are we centering our district client conversations on barriers that need to be removed and supports that need to be created, as informed by conditions?
  2. Implementation: Are all Acceleration Schools learners attending Shared Learning Workshops? Are PLC leaders leading Professional Learning Series with fidelity at their schools?
  3. Satisfaction: To what extent are Acceleration Schools learners satisfied with the quality and relevance of design and facilitation?
  4. Knowledge: Are Acceleration Schools learners able to correctly answer the checks for understanding aligned to the Shared Learning Workshop objectives for each Cycle?
  5. Practice: Are Cycle-aligned teacher practice look-fors evident in the classrooms of Acceleration Schools learners?
  6. Outcomes: To what extent did the changes to teachers’ planning and practices lead to student success?

Expanding Teacher Supports

Key to CCSD’s success has been investments in a coherent instructional strategy that gives students and teachers the conditions for continuous learning. The diagram below shows what was true before the partnership, and how these key factors have changed.

system conditions chart


One PLC leader said,

I’ve never learned as much as a teacher as I have this year—between the support of coaches, the learning cycles, etc.—its wrap around services that lead to ultimate growth. I started out nervous being in an Acceleration School, but now I don’t want to leave because of the development for myself and others.”

Mathematics Success

The district focused on implementing two new sets of high-quality curricula differentiated by grade level in mathematics. They chose Bridges as the mathematics curriculum for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. It focuses on a blend of problem-solving and skill-building in a rigorous but accessible manner. When used well, teachers offer a unique blend of direct instruction, structured investigation, and open exploration.

After initial curriculum implementation sessions and ongoing professional learning, Megan Fisher, an elementary PLC leader, said,

I was able to understand the value of Bridges as a curriculum….our students are getting that rigor, excelling with that rigor, and thriving with that rigor. Last year, I was able to make immediate improvements in my instruction…15 percent more of my students excelled in [South Carolina] standards.”

The 6-8 grade Acceleration Schools classrooms are using Illustrative Math. IM is also a problem-based curriculum that is designed to help students learn to apply mathematical concepts to a real-world context. Leading Educators also provided professional learning design tied to IM, offering a sequence for focused school-based collaboration and iterative growth in instructional practice.

Success was evident by spring

  • In math classes, 100% of teachers focused on grade-level work and grade-level standards the majority of the time.
  • By March, 59% of observed lessons intentionally targeted rigor, up from 40% at the beginning of the school year.

As one teacher put it, “We have a better understanding of the curriculum and the demands on our students so we can address what difficulties they might face and give all students an opportunity to access the content.”

ELA Pilot

CCSD also piloted the EL Education curriculum for literacy in Acceleration Schools this past school year. EL Education is designed to be student-centered and aims to build students’ capacity for three dimensions of high achievement: mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality work.

The pilot results were so robust that the district is considering moving up the implementation timeline for all schools. The ratio of “student talk” to “teacher talk” improved, with 92% of teachers and students using curriculum materials by spring.

According to Michael Freeland, Senior Director of Programming for Leading Educators, “Teachers worked hard to let students drive conversation and lessons. By the end of the year, you could go into a third-grade classroom and see fish bowl book review conversations about a grade-level text led by students.”

Jackie Haynes, the Executive Director of Acceleration Schools, shared,

What’s been exciting about Leading Educators is that our teachers are begging for PLC time. I did a survey with my schools, and I asked for ideas…extending the time in their day to collaborate and do PLCs is in their top priorities.”

Lessons Learned

Over the 2022-2023 school year, Leading Educators expanded real-time shared learning using a to-teacher model for teachers who are balancing learning a new curriculum and implementing new instructional practices. There are also conversations about the best way to measure impact beyond just student achievement data. We look forward to sharing more updates in the near future.

Take Your Next Step

Are you looking for support with curriculum implementation, professional learning, or your instructional strategy? Send us a note to connect with our Partnerships team and learn how we can help.

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