Everyone a Stakeholder: D. P. Cooper Elementary Leverages Rural Assets for Students and Community

Last Updated: June 25, 2013

This article appeared in the June 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Ask around South Carolina’s Pee Dee Region about D. P. Cooper and you’re likely to hear “Marching Band!” The small rural elementary school has earned no small fame for its Marching Lions’ Band — numbering some 100 members in grades two through six.

The Marching Lions' Band performs in the D. P. Cooper Homecoming Parade
The Marching Lions’ Band performs in the D. P. Cooper Homecoming Parade.

The band regularly performs at community events and at other functions throughout the area, including the Andrews High School Homecoming Parade and the Benedict College Homecoming Parade.

D. P. Cooper Elementary School enrolls about 200 students from Child Development (the school’s pre-K program) through 6th grade. It serves the communities of Blakely, Trio, Sutton, Salters, Andrews, and Lane in Williamsburg County, situated near the Pee Dee River.

Arts Matter

The Marching Lions Band was started in the 2006–07 school year, the same year that principal Kerry Singleton, Ed.D., and curriculum specialist Judy Morris came to the school. Students learn to play by ear and to read music under the direction of Jonathan Chandler, the school’s band director. Chandler was named Williamsburg County School District Teacher of the Year in 2012. “There’s a correlation between reading music and high achievement,” says Singleton, explaining the emphasis on music and reading musical notation.

Students enjoy breakfast while reading Green Eggs and Ham
Students enjoy a fun breakfast while reading the
Dr. Seuss book, Green Eggs and Ham.

The band is an important part of the school, and the community has worked hard to make the band possible. Rural schools in South Carolina are among the most poorly funded in the U.S. and D. P. Cooper is no exception. (This year the school suffered a 21.7% decrease in per pupil funding, for example.) So it fell to the community to raise money for uniforms, instruments, flags, batons, and other equipment. That’s no small feat in this community where most people travel at least an hour to work in the state’s coastal tourism destinations.

Our community is very rural and parents and residents have worked hard for the school,” says Morris. The band has helped to repay that work with the positive attention it as brought to the community.

The band is not the only arts program the community has helped support. D. P. Cooper also has two choruses (one for students in the school’s Child Development program through second grade and one for third through sixth grades, each with about 40 members) and the D. P. C. Praise Dance Team. The choruses and praise dance team also perform frequently, traveling to area nursing homes, adult day care programs, and other events. They recently took part in the dedication of a local park. The school also sponsors a Cheerleading and Dance Team that performs at athletic events in correlation with the Williamsburg County Recreation Department.

In addition to its performing arts groups, D. P. Cooper also offers a visual arts program — a rarity in the rural South — in partnership with the Williamsburg County school district. Latrice Durant, a third grader, was a 2013 South Carolina Economic Poster Content winner. Rooms are painted in bright welcoming colors and student work is prominently displayed.

The arts curriculum brings positive attention to the school and is integral to Cooper’s strong academic program and outstanding achievement.

D. P. Cooper Elementary School
D. P. Cooper Elementary School’s kindergartners receive a healthy snack after a lesson on fruits and vegetables.

And those achievements are many. The school has continuously met Adequate Yearly Progress targets since 2008. It has won Palmetto Gold Awards for Academic Achievement & Closing the Achievement Gap. It has been named a School of Choice in South Carolina every year since 2009. It achieved a HealthierUS Gold School Award in 2008–09 and was a National Career Development Association Award winner at region, state, and national levels in 2010 and 2011.

Roots of success

To what does D. P. Cooper Elementary attribute its success? “Hard-working dedicated staff,” says Singleton. “Most of our staff members are from the community. They have family here and children. They’re very committed to the students and to the best possible outcomes for everyone. We’re a very family-oriented school. And," Singleton adds immediately, “the community is very involved and has done a lot of fund-raising. We have been blessed to have many academic experiences for students because our staff and partners in the community go the extra mile.”

The direct involvement of the community is a huge asset for Cooper. Members of the Alumni Association, which is made up of alumni of the three former schools (Blakely, Williamsburg, and Cooper) now served by D. P. Cooper, help out at school regularly. And there is strong involvement from the Trio Action Community Organization, Gideon Masonic Lodge #428, Cedar Grove Chapter of the Eastern Star, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, local churches, and businesses. Participants in the Foster Grandparents program, a partnership with the county’s Vital Aging program, are in the school daily. These community volunteers are an integral part of the school’s team.

Our Foster Grandparents work directly with students, reading with them, tutoring, helping with homework,” explains Morris. “They take kids under their wing and encourage them. And they don’t just provide academic support, but emotional support, too. They really love the children and are loving role models for them.”

Foster Grandparent Rena McCrea, at D. P. Cooper Elementary School
Rena McCrea is a Foster Grandparent at D. P. Cooper Elementary School. Here she is speaking at a parenting workshop at the school.

The school incorporates volunteers with staff. “The Grandparents are part of our team, our family,” explains Singleton. “They participate in staff development with us; they are a big support for teachers.”

Parents and community residents appreciate the school’s attention and commitment to students, and recognize Singleton’s leadership. “Parents of D. P. Cooper are fortunate to have a principal who understands that our students must be adequately prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s workforce,” says Willie Graham, President of the D. P. Cooper Elementary School Parent Teacher Association.

Cooper’s achievements mean a lot to the Williamsburg school district as well. “We are proud of our community school, D. P. Cooper Elementary,” says Alfred L. Darby, a member of the district school board. “Principal Singleton and Mrs. Judy Morris, as well as the dedicated staff members, are great educators with an exceptional concern for their students.”

Leveraging rural assets

Like many rural schools, Cooper’s community is not steeped in resources that are generally in place for schools with such outstanding accomplishments. Other challenges are familiar in rural areas as well: the facility could use improvements, jobs are few and distant, funding for technology has had to come primarily from grants, and the school has lost grades to consolidation.

Yet the school has marshaled the resources of its rural community — the good will, the hard work, the commitment to its children, the proximity of residents to the school, and the fact that community and school are small enough for everyone to know each other.

In a small setting each person’s contributions matter. Everyone knows everyone and is involved in some way,” says Morris. “It really is like a family.”

Community commitment

Cooper is intentional about being a contributing institution in its community — not only in making sure its students are achieving at high levels, but in helping to create common purpose, pride, and a sense of place. Most importantly, perhaps, Cooper recognizes that it takes everyone to have a great school and it treats its community as an equal partner.

That strong sense of interpersonal connection and openness between school and community were once common qualities in many rural schools. D. P. Cooper has worked hard to maintain openness and build connections, recognizing them as bedrock to success.

We try to be true and fair to all stakeholders, and we see everyone in the school and community as a stakeholder,” says Singleton, “We want to keep open lines of communication to everyone.”

The Marching Lions' Band performs in the D. P. Cooper Homecoming Parade
The Marching Lions’ Band at Six Flags Over Georgia.

Doris Williams, Executive Director of the Rural Trust recently spoke with staff at D. P. Cooper and had this to say: “They work really hard, are committed to helping their students develop to their fullest potential, and have a great spirit. They understand their role as a community of educators and learners. They model so many things that are good about good rural schools: intimate relationship with the community, mutual respect between school and community, inclusion of arts in the curriculum, teachers who are indigenous to the community. They know who they are and where they are, and they use their resources really well.”

D. P. Cooper Elementary School is a great example of what’s possible when rural communities and schools join forces to develop their own resources and work together to benefit everyone, especially the community’s children.

Read more about D. P. Cooper Elementary:

See the website of D. P. Cooper Elementary School, with information about the school and photos guaranteed to make your day:

Coverage in The News, Kingstree, South Carolina, which explores the philosophy of D. P. Cooper as it relates to art, collaboration and community, character, and achievement.

Part I:

Part II:

This news report from WCBD Channel 2 News in Charleston features the Marching Lions’ Band:

Video of D. P. Cooper Chorus:

Videos of D. P. Cooper Marching Lions’ Band:

Read more from the June 2013
Rural Policy Matters.