Thornwell Charter School a work in progress

Parts 5, 6 & 7 of a Series

THORNWELL CHARTER SCHOOL: Dr. William P. Jacobs, pastor of Clinton’s First Presbyterian Church, formed the Clinton High School Association on Aug. 31, 1872; the school, which later became Presbyterian College, opened in 1873.

Two years later, Dr. Jacobs opened Thornwell Home for Children, which came to include a private school for residents of Thornwell Home and also for day students from Laurens County.

For more than 100 years, Clinton’s public schools and Thornwell’s private school co-existed with very little interaction other than drama productions and occasional sports competition.

Thornwell’s schools – Thornwell High School on the edge of the campus and Hartness-Thornwell Elementary School in the middle of Thornwell’s 350-acre campus in the heart of Clinton – closed in 2007 because of financial issues.

When Thornwell first announced in November, 2005 that the schools would likely close, the schools had 266 students – 80 of which lived at Thornwell Home.

Discussions began immediately to convert the schools to a public charter school, but Thornwell’s application was denied by the Laurens County School District 56 board of trustees.

That denial was appealed to the State Board of Education, which upheld the school board’s decision in a Oct. 30, 2006 ruling.

The state board’s decision was appealed in the state’s administrative law court by both the Thornwell Planning Committee and the District 56 board of trustees.

The administrative law judge found in favor of the school district, Thornwell’s schools closed and the 80 children living at Thornwell began attending public schools in District 56. 

State law was changed in 2006, creating a statewide Charter School District and eliminating the need for approval by a local school board. Thornwell’s application to join the Charter Institute at Erskine was approved last week and the Thornwell Charter School is set to open for grades 5K-5 in the fall of 2019.

Dr. David O’Shields, superintendent of School District 56, said that while the new charter school will have a negative impact on the district, both financially and from a potential loss of staff, “we want to continue to work with Thornwell. We want to ally with them.”

O’Shields said district officials met with Thornwell last December when the announcement was made that a idea of a charter school was being revived. 

He said District 56 was “somewhat surprised” by the news.

“We had a good meeting with Thornwell,” O’Shields said. “(The meeting) was just an attempt at communication. They said they wanted to work closely with us. They do not wish to harm their relationship with 56.”

“We are not dissatisfied at all with District 56,” said Norman Dover, chairman of the Thornwell Charter School application committee and Thornwell’s vice president of educational programs. “We have the upmost respect and appreciation for the teachers and what they’ve done the last 12 years.”

Dover said Thornwell officials perceive a need to better engage Thornwell students in their own learning process.

“This is in response to that need,” he said. “It’s not in response to anything the district is doing.”


(Next week: Why now?)


Thornwell Part 6


The man spearheading Thornwell’s move to start a public charter school in the former Thornwell High School building said the educational needs of the Thornwell children are behind the movement.

Norman Dover, Thornwell’s vice president of educational programs, said it is those needs that caused Thornwell officials to resurrect the move to a charter school that had been unsuccessful in 2006.

“The needs of our children seem to be increasing,” Dover said recently. “Especially the academic needs. Our children are testing in the bottom 15% in academic performance. There is a huge gap between the (actual) performance and what we expect.”

Soon after Thornwell High School and Thornwell Elementary School closed in 2006, Thornwell opened a Learning Center which operates five days a week in the old high school building.

“Students are here every day from 3-6 p.m.,” Dover said. “We do homework, math and reading remediation. It’s a very, very long day. We’re closing the gap (between expectations and performance), but it’s very hard on the children.”

He said Thornwell’s Family Teaching Model moves children from where they are to independence – where they can make good decisions to survive.

“We want academic growth, also, and moving them toward independence for life,” Dover said. “We think our (charter school programs) will benefit all the children who come into our school.”

The Thornwell Charter School has been approved by the Charter Institute at Erskine and will open for grades 5K-5 in the fall of 2019.

“We’ve been doing a personalized learning approach for several years,” Dover said. “We meet the children where they are and pull them forward. The same approach will fit students who are advanced. (Students) will become engaged in their own learning process and take ownership in their learning.”

Dover said the programs will create a desire by the students “to appreciate genuine feedback.

“We want them to have an attitude of curiosity, where they want to learn,” he said.

Dover touted the benefits of Thornwell’s successful Read Right program, part of a national reading plan that promises rapid reading improvement.

Thornwell has been doing Read Right for almost two years. Teachers must undergo 18 weeks of intensive training to become certified. Dover said the program is very expensive, but Thornwell hopes to implement Read Right in the charter school.

There are 60 people employed in Thornwell’s Learning Center, from pre-school to tutors and Read Right teachers. Most of them are part-time, Dover said.

He said once the charter school opens, the Learning Center won’t be open every day until 6 p.m. “But we’ll probably still have an afterschool program.

“We have a clear vision of what we want to do,” he said.


(Next – The series ends with talk about teachers.)


Thornwell Part 7


The Thornwell Charter School, having received approval to become part of the Charter Institute at Erskine as a public charter school, must now begin accepting students (initial approval is for grades 5K-5) and hiring teachers for the 2019 school year.

Norman Dover, Thornwell’s vice president of educational programs and chairman of the application committee, has said the school wants to have 20 students in the first classes for grades 5K-5. As TCS adds grades, he said the class size for grades 6-12 will be 25 students. 

“We will start with one class of each grade,” Dover said. “That’s all we have room for in the (former Thornwell High School building on the Thornwell campus).”

In a March interview, Dover said once approval was received – it was given following an April 20 hearing at Erskine – the school would enter a planning phase.

“We want to have the student body selected by the spring of 2019,” he said. “Maybe sooner. We need to hire staff, hire an administrator.”

At the time of the interview, TCS had received more than 400 interest forms from parents and guardians (including the 68 students who live on the Thornwell campus). Sixty-four people had contacted the committee about working at the new school, most of them teachers.

“We will need to have the staff come in earlier than usual for training,” Dover said. “We’ll need the staff here three weeks before school (starts). We want to make sure the staff understands our program and they will need to be trained in it.”

The teachers will be trained in Thornwell’s Teaching Family Model, he said. “We’ll ask them to do new things.”

According to the TCS website, “students at Thornwell Charter School will learn and develop in a rigorous, personalized academic environment that fosters a love for learning, in an individualized health and wellness program that promotes lifelong health, and in the Teaching Family model that helps children develop life skills which will enable them to succeed in higher education, in their careers and to be productive members of their communities.”

Dover said TCS hopes to hire certified teachers. The school can hire uncertified people if “they have an educational background and a pathway to achieve certification.”

He said TCS will set its own salary schedule for teachers. The budget, Dover said, will be set based on the local district average.

Teachers will be eligible for state retirement and insurance, he said. “We plan to offer the state plan, but it could be something a little different.”

“We want to recruit excellent staff,” Dover said.

School District 56 Superintendent Dr. David O’Shields has said he is concerned about the “brain drain” if a number of teachers leave the district to work at TCS.


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