High-Performing Schools in Rural & High-Poverty Places

By Angela Hinton, Cathy Garner, Kristen Senn, Norman Mayfield, Emily Daniel, Marsha Adler, Allison Dupler, Brittany Acquisto and Brittany Green, originally published in the March, 2021 issue of Equity & Access

Nestled among pastures and farms, centered between two beautiful lakes with mountain views in rural Upstate South Carolina, the heartbeat of Carlisle-Foster’s Grove Elementary School is fueled by intentional relationships that build a culture of efficacy among teachers and students. Through collaborative efforts with teachers, parents, and community, the school maximizes every moment, every day, to weave together the knowledge, life, and career skills that ensure student success at a rural school with more than 55% pupils in poverty that earned the distinction of becoming a 2019 National Blue Ribbon School for high achievement over time.

Less than 10 miles down the road, tucked away in the small town of Chesnee, SC is Chesnee Elementary School, a Title I school with approximately 70% poverty which was the second-highest performing Title I School and eighth-highest performing school in the state (out of 663 elementary schools) on the 2019 SC School Report Card.

Making High Performance a Reality in High-Poverty Schools

Both of these schools are shining lights in Spartanburg School District Two, a district with high-performing schools throughout; however, what these schools really have in common is a sustained focus on continuous improvement by the implementation of our district’s Instructional Focus on high impact Teaching and Learning Teams (TLTs), Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), and the coupling of best practices with vetted digital tools to further differentiate and personalize learning and success for all students. This continuous focus and commitment to continuous improvement has transformed both schools into exemplary models of high-performing schools in rural, high-poverty settings.

At both schools, teams of teachers collaborate together, with the support of instructional coaches and administrators, to implement the TLT process using the district’s High Impact Instructional Cycle. During scheduled weekly meetings, educators work together to collaborate on standards-based curriculum and instruction and plan next steps to meet each student’s needs. During TLTs, teachers want to ensure that they truly have an understanding of what students need to learn by carefully unpacking the standards to create learning progressions, goals, and success criteria that is communicated to the students.

• Analysis of data plays a critical part in planning and differentiating instruction at both schools

• Small group instruction is the catalyst for addressing individual student needs based on students’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests

• Classroom instruction reflects the importance of addressing the many different learning styles of students

• By constantly looking at student data, teachers constantly plan for how to differentiate and personalize the instruction in the classroom to meet students’ needs

Supporting Both Academic & Life Skills

During TLT time, teachers find that certain students continue to struggle, so they use the Response to Intervention (RtI) process, an important part of our systemic, MTSS Framework of supports. Using this process, teachers can focus on specific skills and interventions that can be used to push students to the next level by meeting them where they are.

In addition to RtI, social and emotional well-being is also an important part of our MTSS framework. Centering on the needs of students beyond academics is vital to both their academic and personal success. This means striving to ensure that every child gets what he or she needs whether academically, socially, or emotionally.

As a part of our Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework at each school, students are taught what it means to behave properly in all aspects of the school program. They also earn special privileges and treats individually and collectively to reinforce and reward positive behavior.

The goal of our MTSS Framework is to ensure that all students attain mastery of the standards, develop healthy, strong relationships; acquire the soft skills to work with others; and develop positive attitudes toward lifelong learning. Our MTSS framework gives our students support in both academic and life skills.

Rigor Builds Equity

In addition to our high impact TLT process and the MTSS Framework, the third critical piece of our instructional focus is the coupling of sound, research-proven instructional practices with vetted instructional technology to further differentiate and personalize instruction for students and increase students’ mastery of the standards and subsequent achievement.

At both schools, there has been a constant focus on providing solid, guided instruction in literacy and math. Guided instruction is a time for the teachers to use data to pull together small groups of students and give them support on areas in which they commonly struggle. Students not meeting with the teacher in a small group are able to work in another small group, with a peer, or independently on differentiated learning tasks designed to move them forward on their learning paths.

As part of guided instruction time, students utilize vetted instructional technology and adaptive software such as iReady to work on standards and skills they have yet to master.


• Allows students to work on their learning paths as well as assignments from their teachers to ensure they are getting the level of instruction they need

• Provides materials for teacher-directed, small group instruction as well as adaptive instruction designed to meet students’ learning needs in reading and math

• Augments guided instruction, helping all students attain mastery of the standards over time

• Challenge students who have already mastered the standards, pushing them forward in their learning

In addition to the use of the TLT and MTSS processes and the coupling of guided instruction with powerful digital tools like iReady, educators in both of these schools firmly believe that rigor builds equity and that all students can learn and learn well!

Mastery of Standards is for All Students

We believe that when students are challenged and see that their teachers believe in them, amazing things will happen! Students who are typically low performing, as well as students with disabilities, can be pushed beyond what is expected. In these high-performing schools, students are met where they are and provided with intentional learning activities that allow them to reach proficiency and beyond.

Students at both of these schools know that they will be successful, given the appropriate time and support. They take ownership of their learning and pride in setting and reaching goals. And the best news of all is that all of these students and teachers know that these processes work for them — and that they can work in all grade levels and settings, whether a school is located across from a beautiful cow pasture like Carlisle-Foster’s Grove Elementary, tucked away in a very small town like Chesnee, or located in a bustling metropolitan area!

We thank the dedicated, equity-focused educators and leaders at Spartanburg School District 2 who contributed to this article: Angela Hinton, Cathy Garner, Kristen Senn, Norman Mayfield, Emily Daniel, Marsha Adler, Allison Dupler, Brittany Acquisto, and Brittany Green

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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