Stinging Inspiration

Spartanburg Educational leaders Drs. Laura Reynolds, Russell Booker, and John Stockwell provide insights to Spartanburg Herald Journal reporter Adam Orr (left) after they participated in a trip to explore the Finnish Educational System.

Spartanburg Educational leaders Drs. Laura Reynolds, Russell Booker, and John Stockwell provide insights to Spartanburg Herald Journal reporter Adam Orr (left) after they participated in a trip to explore the Finnish Educational System.

Three words were voiced most frequently at a relaxed yet vitally important debriefing with Spartanburg Herald Journal reporter Adam Orr regarding the recent trip made by Upstate Educational leaders to Finland. There, educational outcomes for children have rocketed over the last twenty years.  Orr has been following and reporting on the Spartanburg Academic Movement, sharing the community vision for improved student outcomes through our educational system.

The meeting, held in SAM offices served as an ‘unpacking’ of thoughts related to the experiences of SAM Executive Director John Stockwell, SAM Board Member and District 7 Superintendent Russell Booker, and Dr. Laura Reynolds, Dean of the USC Upstate School of Education.  All acknowledged it was rejuvenating to the work they do here – not just in spirit, but in helping them form action plans.   The three key words shared repeatedly were simple:

“Trust”… “Play”… “Everyone”

Before leaving Finland, Booker had already called his administrative team to shift some strategic plans and funding.

Emboldened by seeing the theory of building lifelong learners actualized across the Finnish culture, Reynolds said she felt that those participating could no longer just share and admire the thoughts behind the practices they had seen. 

The experience was validation for what had been rooted in theory or quiet ‘dream’ conversations among educations. Having seen the dream lived means that now is the time to speak out - to take those theories and dreams out of the mind and heart and just do what needs to be done.  

“If we don’t agree with how something is being done, we have to call it out and just deal with the fuss it may cause,” Reynolds said.

A Matter of Trust

“The feeling of trust that permeates the schools and the culture as a whole makes the Finnish system fundamentally different,” Stockwell said.

The majority of children ride bicycles to school which are left, un-chained, outside the school.

When and how the curriculum is taught is left to the teachers.

Examples shared with Orr include the 500-page national curriculum. That’s it – only 500 pages to guide educating a nation - from cradle to career.  The national department of education leaves the implementation of the curriculum to the schools without the deep oversight and accountability issues present in the SC and US national system. 

Teachers internalize and respond to that deep trust, embracing the mindset that success of their community and nation is tied directly to the quality of their work with students.  Teachers are well paid, though to dispel myths, they are not paid as well as doctors and lawyers, nor is every one driving around in a sports car. 

But not a single teacher had a second job.

Teaching is considered an esteemed profession. Only about ten percent of those applying to get into teacher education programs are accepted and teacher turnover is small. Counting down the years to retirement isn’t the mindset as teachers often keep working in the system they love well into their sixties.

Teaching is still an intense career, and none denied that three ‘best’ parts of the Finnish system are: June, July, and August. Their teachers appreciate as their summer break just like teachers here do, but there, teaching ‘summer school’ is a foreign concept.

The Power of Play

Play doesn’t just happen in the summer months and there are very few academically focused summer programs in the communities.

Play is part of every day, and not just one part. Between each structured class time, children are sent out to play.  Snow, rain, or cold do not matter.  Play is vital part of the structure of their day. 

It’s also embedded into… structures.

The US contingent was amazed with open classrooms and inventive resources to meet the sheer physicality that children bring with them into the classroom. “Nontraditional” seating was standard.  Children were free to lounge across tables and chairs, unconfined.  They even saw students ‘seated’ around a learning station where the seats were swings suspended above the table. 

But teachers aren’t playing when it comes to making sure every student’s skill grows. In fact, at the ‘elementary’ level, a teacher will follow her students for multiple years (yes, there too, the majority of elementary teachers are women.) Understanding between parents, teachers, and students grows over time – with all meeting regularly throughout the school year to discuss (not test) advancement through the learning goals. When a student struggles with a concept, the teacher has a deep understand of that child’s learning process and how to adjust.

Running through the school wearing socks and no shoes, even sliding around adults, wasn’t seen as play, or disrespectful, but the natural state of how children move. And it was embraced, not chastised, and not seen as a safety risk.

Everyone Matters – Equity is not a lens, it’s a way of life

Learning is a lifelong endeavor – for everyone.  

The question to ask is “Do we have heart enough to lift up our weakest?” said Booker.

The nation-wide commitment to “yes” being the answer is clearly the foundation upon which the Finnish educational system was built.  However, it doesn’t stop with uplifting a child who may be struggling.  It is about meeting people where they are.  For instance, if a young person chooses to enter an internship in a vocational program and years later decides he or she wants to pursue a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree, the system is there for them, providing free education throughout life no matter how far that individual chooses to take it.  It allows for the whole person to develop and for lifelong learning to be the national way of life. 

“There are no dead-ends,” Booker added.

The differences in the political structures of American and Finland were never part of the dialog and as those gathered knew, didn’t need to be.  Politics and party are simply not issues at the table when the entire nation embraces education as a human right for which they all accept responsibility.

Immigrants receive a year of intensive native language training so that they can integrate well into the learning and social environment.  The lack of age-specific assessment allows students them to move forward from where they are, throughout the educational years.

Formal school doesn’t start until children are 7 years old and if special needs exist, those are offered.

Bright Spots at home

The visit to Finland did bring attention to local points of pride:

·         In Finland, the education system and schools function in a type of isolation from other community entities. There, businesses are not brought into the educational environment as they are here. Schools here benefit from many cooperative programs between local businesses and schools – from volunteers to funding support.

·         Parent engagement in US schools is high. Though parents engage in a minimum of three meetings with teachers each year in Finland, they are not involved in the day-to-day operation of the school through volunteerism and organizations like PTO/PTA, school improvement councils, etc.

·         “Spartanburg is different.” Reynolds, considered ‘new’ to the area since starting her position a little more than a year ago, was quick to highlight that she sees Spartanburg as being uniquely ready for implementing learnings from the Finland trip. “The unity and clarity across sectors, as well as the willingness is like nothing else I have seen.  The shifting we see as still necessary can happen here because it’s already been started through the work of SAM.”

The Sting

The sting to the team came with awareness that the ‘answers’ they were seeing in action had been close to hand for years.

The irony was not lost on the group when Finnish educators explained that it was US based research related early brain development, and creating learning environments suited to the physical, mental, and emotional development of children formed the foundation for turnaround of the Finnish system.

“As a culture, we didn’t listen to ourselves,” said Reynolds.

Is it too late?

No. Not one person in the contingent came back thinking we just needed to stick with the system and structures in place that aren’t working for all students. All came back inspired for continuing the dialog, and most importantly, for taking action based on the opportunity.


Sharing More:

·         Members of the Upstate educator’s group posted regularly on social media using #SC2Finland.

·         What Works SC, a forum of the Riley Institute at Furman University included sharing from the team.

·         Local community gatherings are being scheduled for team members to share insights and follow up action plans with interested community members.

·         SCETV is in process with documenting the group’s experience and learnings to share to keep the dialog and action moving forward.

“I did not see anything in the Finnish system that acts in cross-purposes with our goals here,” Stockwell said. 


What if…

…Assessments were used to steer instead of control.

…Success of education is measured for its personalization along a life continuum and education across communities and counties were seen as it is – a fruit salad.  “You can’t compare an apple and an orange.”

…Teachers received priority seating.  “No one is discounting the appropriateness of offering our military priority seating on planes.  But what would it look like if our teachers were given that kind of respect.”

…Experienced teachers were allowed paid sabbaticals as part of a retention plan?  Give those teachers with the most experience a chance to refresh and energize their passion so they won’t be counting the days until they can leave the classroom.

…Companies provided career structures that valued and supported continuing education. Not just work-study co-ops for younger employees, but for older adults who want to add new skills?

…a functional bond between parent, child, and school were expected from all?

…every school served as a ‘lab school’ for teacher preparation and those guiding teacher preparation were as integrated into the schools as their students?

… experiences and skills gained over time built into competency-based qualifications (stacked degrees/qualifications) that were recognized across businesses and industries?

… most of our students aimed to earn a master’s degree?

… years of work experience and competency building could translate into a vocation-based degree?

…TEACHERS were recognized as the keys to quality in education?

This ARTICLE along with PHOTOS was posted by Spartanburg Herald Journal as a result of this debriefing and his conversations with participants exploring the Finnish educational system.

Continuous Improvement (CI) - It's not about failure... it's about failing FORWARD

Local teachers excited to learn new practices to make the difference needed for students.

Local teachers excited to learn new practices to make the difference needed for students.

“We need a picture of today.  In in a few years, we’re going to want to look back and say this is the day it happened.”

Those were the words of a local educator willing to spend extra hours in training in the hope that the missing link in her years of effort to impact students had just been found. She said that in July, during SAM’s first Continuous Improvement training sessions.  It was said again in September as a second group of educators received their first training.

Why? They had just received permission to fail … forward. 

Failure = Success 

Cheryl Broadnax and Melissa McCoy are national leaders in embedding CI practice in educational settings.

Cheryl Broadnax and Melissa McCoy are national leaders in embedding CI practice in educational settings.

The equation of failure=success was never taught in school, and certainly not in professional educator training. But now it will be. In fact, it will be the muscle behind developing a wave of successes. Cheryl Broadnax, senior director for district improvement with StriveTogether and consultant Melissa McCoy came to Spartanburg to train educators in the hidden power in the muscle of failure.  Breaking loose from the emotional/judgmental stigma attached to failure releases that power, they explained. When teachers, principals, and superintendents sit in the same room and acknowledge that failure is acceptable, something changes. That’s exactly what happened around the SAM table during the Continuous Improvement training sessions held July 30-31.  It happened again September 5-6, 2018.

All in - a group of educational leaders from SAM’s Four Schools Project train to make the difference for schools in high poverty communities.

All in - a group of educational leaders from SAM’s Four Schools Project train to make the difference for schools in high poverty communities.

“This unleashes the power of professional educators. We can track what’s working and what isn’t and share that in a way that makes a difference on a very practical level,” said Broadnax. She experienced this first hand as she worked to embed continuous improvement science across the Cincinnati school district where she served as assistant superintendent. 

“This makes the invisible, visible,” explains. Mendy Mossbrook, Director of SAM’s developing Continuous Improvement Institute as she describes the process.  “Instead of hiding development opportunities, we use the ‘current state’ to set goals and focus on improvement. It involves making small changes, continuously, with the expectation that these small changes add up to a significant difference. This is a very different approach than is familiar to many. The typical approach for change-making is to make a big goal or process shift that creates frustration and burnout when it is not obtained. This new approach builds toward success, not expecting it to be instantaneous, but sustained – the key to long-term impact,” Mossbrook explained.

The first cohort of CI trained educators included newly hired CI Coaches and teachers engaged in The Four Schools Project

The first cohort of CI trained educators included newly hired CI Coaches and teachers engaged in The Four Schools Project

SAM’s first summer training sessions involved newly hired CI (Continuous Improvement) coaches and administrators from Spartanburg Districts 6 and 7 and launched SAM’s Continuous Improvement training. Over two days they worked to understand the process steps that would guide their work within schools participating in “The Four Schools” initiative. The effort targets work within the four county schools with the highest rates of poverty, a factor tied directly to currently low success rates for students within those schools. The CI work takes the process-driven analytical model common to business and industry and merges it with the intricate human/relational element that plays out in the teaching/learning dynamic.   

“Teaching is a matter of heart.  It’s about relationships,” said Russell Booker, District 7 Superintendent, who participated in the training.

So rather than looking at a low grade as a fly to be batted away while moving forward through curriculum calendar, hoping the next grade will be better, that grade is now the reminder a teacher to drop back into the relationship built with the student and have the student figure out what happened. That’s right, the student. 

If Joey didn’t demonstrate he’d mastered the skill, what does Joey think happened?  What does the teacher think happened? Together, cause is identified and a change in strategy, an intervention, is planned.

Broadnax calls the process “facilitating in the wild” due to the personalized nature of the work. It’s not just re-teaching a concept, it’s getting deeply into how each child is internalizing his or her own learning. 

Plan-Do-Study-Act: Repeat


After an intervention to improve a weakness has been planned (P) and tried (D), the results are studied(S). Then the action is either abandoned, adopted, or adjusted (A) and the process repeats. Even if a new strategy works, the process doesn’t end. A single strategy may not work in all applications, or for all students, so an ongoing pattern of monitoring long-term improvement begins, and most importantly, continues. It is the ultimate process of becoming “the best at getting better,” which can apply to everything from learning vocabulary words to managing stressors that distract a student from a lesson.

By embedding PDSA and an acceptance of failure into the system in place, success starts emerging. As PDSA cycles continue, success is achieved with growth, not just an end goal assessment. Ultimately, small successes, based on identifying failures, build larger successes.

By the afternoon of September 6, 29 educators were ready to head back to their schools and classrooms to start their first PDSA cycles. CI Coaches will be following those teachers and guiding their progression, helping to fine-tune the process. CI Coaches will share their work with follow-up coaching in November when Broadnax and McCoy plan to return. 

After participating in the July training, 100% of the participants said they will plan their next lesson differently as a result of what they’d learned and all 29 said they’d recommend the training to a peer. 

Embedding this process is its own PDSA. Ensuring responsive support is key to establishing a practice in schools that can continue. SAM has offered both – through the Continuous Improvement training launched in the summer of 2018, an ongoing effort to impact schools and educational success across Spartanburg County. 

“This is celebrating and embracing improvement – not a single test score.”

– Mendy Mossbrook, Director of SAM’s Continuous Improvement Institute


SAM’s CI team - Dr. John Stockwell, SAM’s Executive Director; Beth Thompson, Director of Continuous Improvement; Trainer Cheryl Broadnax from StriveTogether; Melissa McCoy, Trainer and Independent Consultant; Dr. Glen Carson, SAM Director of Data Management; and Mendy Mossbrook, SAM’s CI Institute Director.

SAM’s CI team - Dr. John Stockwell, SAM’s Executive Director; Beth Thompson, Director of Continuous Improvement; Trainer Cheryl Broadnax from StriveTogether; Melissa McCoy, Trainer and Independent Consultant; Dr. Glen Carson, SAM Director of Data Management; and Mendy Mossbrook, SAM’s CI Institute Director.

SAM Board Member Steps into National Leadership Role with StriveTogether

Spartanburg, SC — On Wednesday, October 10, at the 2018 national StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network Convening held in Seattle, Washington, Dr. Russell Booker, Superintendent of Spartanburg School District 7 and founding board member of The Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM), was installed as the newest member of the StriveTogether Board of Directors. StriveTogether is a national nonprofit working to bring communities together around data to make decisions and improve results for kids .

Booker with Kids copy.jpg

 “I’m delighted that Dr. Russell Booker has joined our board,” StriveTogether Board Chair Nancy L. Zimpher said. “A longtime champion for children in Spartanburg County, Russell has a wealth of experience and knowledge that will strengthen our Network’s ability to get better results for children and youth in communities across the country.”

Booker joins the seven-member national board in leading the strategic focus of the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network reaching 10.5 million students and involving 10,800 organizations in collective impact partnerships across 30 states and Washington, D.C.  To see the full board, visit:

 “Dr. Booker is a tremendous asset to Spartanburg. As a SAM Board member, he brings insight to the work from our most urban communities while adding perspective from multiple sectors due to his career-long dedication to strong community engagement. His insight has deeply impacted the success of the Spartanburg Academic Movement across our county,” said Jennifer Evins, SAM Board President.

 Dr. Booker was introduced as the newest board member to the StriveTogether network at the opening reception of the annual Convening, held at the Seattle Art Museum.

Booker and the SAM Board have challenged Spartanburg County and the Spartanburg Academic Movement to find answers for children, to close disparities in educational achievement, and make the difference in bringing equity to the forefront of community action. He has been actively engaged in StriveTogether staff site meetings in Spartanburg and other cities.

 “I have tremendous respect for StriveTogether and the Cradle to Career Network. Our network partners truly understand the value of collective impact – of getting key community leaders around one table to effect better results for all of our children. By deepening our relationships and sharing accountability we have a chance to make real and lasting changes to our education systems. That’s happening in Spartanburg thanks to SAM, and it’s incredibly meaningful work to be fueling the success of our children,” Booker said.

About Dr. Booker:

Russell Booker began his tenure as Superintendent of District Seven in 2010 after serving three years as superintendent in York School District One. With an unwavering conviction in the power of education, he believes our greatest hope for the future is to inspire and equip students for meaningful lives of leadership and service. Described as an inspirational leader and a champion for children, he has directed many progressive initiatives in District 7.  Most notably, he led a total restructuring of the District, a complete digital immersion, and a comprehensive capital plan that has been described as bold and transformational. 

He is a South Carolina Liberty Fellow (affiliate of the Aspen Global Leadership Network), a graduate of the Diversity Leaders Initiative, and the Spartanburg Regional Fellows program. He holds membership with Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., the Southside Lions Club, and the Downtown Rotary Club of Spartanburg.

Booker serves as vice-chair of the Liberty Fellowship Board and is a past Chair of the United Way of the Piedmont. He serves on the board of the Spartanburg Academic Movement, the Northside Advisory Board, and Wingate University.

In 2013, Dr. Booker received the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Urban League of the Upstate and in the summer of 2015 was inducted into the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alumnus. In 2015, Dr. Booker was named the South Carolina Superintendent of the Year by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA) and was also named Superintendent of the Year by the South Carolina Athletic Administrators Association. He is a past-president of SCASA’s Superintendents’ Division.

Booker received his BS degree from Wingate University and his doctorate from the University of South Carolina. Russell and his wife Sheryl are the proud parents of two sons and reside in Spartanburg.  

This video provides a brief review of Dr. Booker’s perspective on the Collective Impact, Continuous Improvement focus of SAM and the StriveTogether Cradle to Career network: