Panel focuses on Comer strategies as foundation for school successes

Post 180 Days: Hartsville commentary highlights link between development and learning

Following the March 12, 45-minute, edited preview of 180 Days: Hartsville, nearly 300 attendees stayed to listen to a panel discussion featuring several of the key people from the film as well as two guests, Dr. James P. Comer, founder of the Comer School Development Program, and Jacquie Jones, director/producer of the documentary. Much of the commentary from participants revolved around the significance of the Comer SDP in the two elementary schools featured in the documentary.

The panel was moderated by Beryl Dakers, director of cultural programming/outreach for SC-ETV, who asked questions based on the content of the edited version of the film. In addition to Jones and Dr. Comer, other panelists included Dr. Eddie Ingram, superintendent of the Darlington County School District (DCSD); Harris DeLoach, Jr., executive chairman of Sonoco; Carlita Davis, assistant superintendent at the DCSD; Tara King, principal of West Hartsville Elementary School and Pierre Brown, grade 5 teacher at West Hartsville.

180 Days: Hartsville follows a year in the life of Rashon Johnson, a bright fifth grade student at West Hartsville as he begins to experience some behavioral issues. In addition to Rashon, the film features West Hartsville principal, Mrs. King, as she struggles in her first year in that role, balancing the needs of her school with those of the students. On the other side of town, at Thornwell School School for the Arts, the documentary illustrates some of the same issues Mrs. King faces, although the principal, Julie Mahn, has been in her role for five years. Interspersed throughout the film, glimpses of key community outreach and involvement lay a foundation, but the documentary never delves deeply into what truly makes Hartsville the unique place it is, or concretely demonstrates how the Comer SDP set into motion the success that ultimately ends the full, two-hour program.

When asked about the central lesson of the documentary, Dr. Comer said, “What we saw are teachers who are caring and committed. It is all done in a framework that allows them to create a culture that supports the development of children.” Comer, the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center, stresses that development and learning are inextricably linked. The framework, he added, is what leads to good outcomes academically and behaviorally.

The framework Comer refers to is the SDP he created decades ago that has been successfully implemented in schools worldwide. The no-fault problem solving, consensus-driven model focuses on development of the whole child along six key pathways: ethical, cognitive, social, language, psychological and physical. Comer's model has consistently shown that when children have positive developmental experiences, they are motived to learn.

Supporting Dr. Comer's position, Mrs. King spoke up, saying, “Educating kids is a huge responsibility. And it's a responsibility given to all of us as educators, teachers, parents and members of the community. It's a new age: children come to us with a lot of challenges that must be met before we can even begin to truly educate them.

“I'm blessed to have been exposed to the Comer model by Dr. Comer. Education is much more than just academics,” King continued. “As educators, we are charged with making sure our students are successful. Successful means they leave us prepared for life. To do that, we have to address all of their needs, not just their academic needs.”

Dr. Eddie Ingram echoed Mrs. King's comments. “If we don't meet the needs of our children first—whether it be hunger, clothing, shelter and making them feel loved and needed—we can't teach them.”

The panel discussion also centered around the topic of education as a whole, and how communities like Hartsville are trying to succeed. Harris DeLoach, often outspoken on the issue of education, and how companies like Sonoco are looking for solutions that help provide suitable candidates for employment, said, “Education is the biggest issue facing our country today. We've gone from being the premier public education system in the world after World War II, to now, where the U.S. is ranked 22nd or 23rd out of 27 industrialized nations. Like it or not, we all compete in a global economy. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to give them the best education we can so they can compete.

“Business and community have to come together and do whatever is necessary to support schools. We have be part of the solution,” he added emphatically.

When DeLoach said education was as close to a silver bullet for success as he could identify, Dr. Comer agreed. “This is the first time in the history of the world where we are being asked to educate children who come from low-income, non-mainstream backgrounds. And we have to know how to do it."

The solution, according to Dr. Comer, is providing the necessary developmental experiences to properly shape the brain and enable it to function well. “The most critical thing is to think about development and the whole child,” he added. “Realize that children aren't good or bad, smart or dumb. They have different developmental experiences that either prepared them to be successful or they didn't. If we can provide them with support for good development, we're going to make it.”