I've been arguing for a long time that if we would only take academics as seriously as we take athletics, we'd see a major improvement in our schools. But I never expected to see that thesis proved quite so dramatically as in Sumter School District Two, this mostly black, mostly poor, mostly rural area a 40-minute drive from Columbia.
While it is far too early to draw definitive conclusions, the experiment here already shows signs of significant academic improvement. If it works out as well as its originator believes it will, it could change the way America educates its children.
What is happening here is a district-wide attempt to implement something like Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." And before you dismiss it as oh-one-of-those, you ought to know something about the man whose brainchild it is.
H. William Mitchell, District Two superintendent, is a down-homey country boy ex-coach. And like most athletic coaches, he came naturally as important as native attitude is almost as important as native ability, that the secret to winning is learning to believe in yourself. He read the literature and founde that there was substantial evidence for his coach's insight. For instance, he learned that the factor most consistently correlated with reading success is self-confidence.
Up to that point, he was dealing with the obvious. The next question was what to do to give the 10,000 youngsters in his 15 district schools the self-confidence that he was certain would lead to improved academic success. He decided to do it directly. Every adult employee of the school system, beginning two years ago, was recruited into a district-wide effort to work directly on the children's self-concept, to teach them to think positively. Since then, slogans, signs, school-based programs, visiting lecturers, parents, teachers, custodial workers -- almost literally everything and everybody connected with the school system -- have been used to drum into the children a sense of their own self-worth.
Newspapers and book covers and even milk cartons carry the message: Think positively. National celebrities, including Jesse Jackson, Paul Harvey, former Olympians Bob Richards and Bruce Jenner. Bob Hope and Norman Vincent Peale himself, have come to Sumter to lecture children, or work with staffers, or cut radio and TV spot announcements hammering away at the virtues of PMA -- positive mental attitude.
The result? District Two is not yet a community of National Merit Scholars, but already:
Test scores for first-graders are, for the first time, above national averages -- including pupils at one predominantly black rural school who were scoring at 0.7 grade equivalency before the program began.
While the greatest gains have come in the primary grades, scores are improving nearly as dramatically in the upper grades.
School attendance is at an all-time high of 94.3 percent, while suspensions are down dramatically.
Vandalism is practically nonexistent, and the whole district, covering some 676 square miles, reported only two incidents of drug abuse the whole of last year.
Superintendent Mitchell is convinced that PMA is the difference. "Study after study has shown a significant relationship between self-esteem and achievement," he told me. "Numerous researchers have found that students with negative attitudes -- were usually the low achievers. And what was happening in the public schools? These same studies showed that while the majority of children -- 80 percent -- have a positive self-esteem when they enter school, this self-esteem is eroded as they progress through school until as they progress through school until they sixth grade the figures are reversed -- 80 percent have negative self-esteem and low expectations."
But not at Sumter -- at least not now.
Billy Mitchell will talk to you as long as you can stand to listen about how the change was accomplished.
"To begin with, we simply bombarded the children's minds for 185 days with positiveness offered in ways that would provide input through one or more of the five senses. Every item we could conceive was used. Five radio stations and three television stations aired our positive attitude boosters.
"Then we learned to use teachers and other school personnel as models for everything from dress to speech and high expectations.
"Finally, we provided positive reinforcement in the classroom. Literally hundreds of classroom strategies were developed, strategies which stressed positive rather than negative reinforcement."
The results are as obvious in the attitudes of the children here -- especially the very young ones -- as they are in the standardized test results. These children, it is instantly clear, really do think well of themselves.
Educators from 30 states have written Mitchell, or visited Sumter, to learn how to do what he seems to be doing with extraordinary success.
And best of all, this incredible experiment costs hardly anything at all -- which means that there is a very good chance District Two will stick with it.