Chester elementary program honored for boosting student success

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comOctober 29, 2013 

— A Chester County elementary school with close ties to Winthrop University has won an award for an effective and innovative educational initiative.

The Chester Park Elementary School of Inquiry and its project-based learning initiative won the 2013 Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award for Excellence. The award was presented by Furman University’s Riley Institute and SC Future Minds, a public education non-profit. The school was selected from among more than 80 across the state.

“The big overall goal of the award is to highlight programs that are working to help our students,” said Scott McPherson, a project coordinator with the Riley Institute. “We don’t need all the negative attention that our schools currently receive.”

At Chester Park, 90 percent of the 435 students qualify for free and reduced lunch. It’s a Professional Development School in partnership with Winthrop, which works with high-need schools in the region to improve student learning.

Sue Spencer, an associate professor at Winthrop, developed the project-based learning model that has been implemented over the last few years.

Project-based learning can encompass every subject area and address every educational standard, she said.

“Kids learn the content in order to solve real-world problems,” she said.

For Charletha Jackson’s kindergarten class, that meant learning about trees to decide which would be best to plant around the school district’s new office.

After learning how to research and compare different types of trees, the students got to make recommendations about the type of tree to plant and then got to plant one themselves.

“They loved it,” Jackson said.

Project-based learning gives students greater ownership of their education, said second-grade teacher Jennifer Gaston. A lot of what her class does is presenting what they learn to their peers.

“They also get to present in whatever way they like, which lets kids with different learning styles really do well,” she said.

Chester Park was one of three finalists for the award. The other two were state-wide programs.

The fact that Chester Park won says a lot about the partnership with Winthrop University, the faculty at the school and the effectiveness of project-based learning, Superintendent Agnes Slayman said.

“This award really validates the hard work they’ve been doing,” she said.

Since project-based learning was implemented, Chester Park students’ test scores have increased. Between 2010 and 2012, the percentage of students meeting the standard on the math portion of the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards increased to 43 percent, from 34 percent.

And while test scores aren’t the only indication of student success, fourth-grade teacher Nakia Houston said the scores do help.

“It shows we’re meeting the learning needs of all students,” she said.

Chester Park also received $5,000, which will help pay to expand the project-based learning program across the school.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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