Building a Professional Learning Community Pays Dividends – Wendell Sumter

Like many school leaders in resource-strapped communities, Wendell Sumter knew that he would have to transform his school from the top down. For Sumter, that meant creating a rich Professional Learning Community (PLC) that would arm his teachers with resources, data and inspiration.

The journey to become a PLC began four years ago. “During the 2009-2010 school year we began holding grade-level team meetings school-wide,” Sumter explains. “The teams worked to create common assessments and testing norms. Once assessments were given, the results were analyzed and teachers shared strategies to provide intervention for struggling students and enrichment for proficient students. Grade-level teams met with administration to present data and discuss student progress.”

What started as an effort to share information about students has raised the level of achievement throughout Great Falls Elementary. And just as important, the PLC has given teachers and leaders at the school the tools they need to respond to the inevitable challenges. One of those challenges came when this Title I school went through a restructuring, a transition that impacted their standardized test scores.

“Similar to many other schools in South Carolina, our spring 2013 PASS (standardized testing) scores dipped. Our report card dropped to a ‘D’,” Sumter tells us. “I made a promise to the entire school community that if we made the highest grade in the district I would kiss a pig. We analyzed our data, regrouped, and worked together to improve to a ‘B’ and to become the district’s highest performing elementary school. We did it and the day I kissed the pig was my proudest moment in my entire career. Seeing the faces and the joy of the parents, faculty, staff, staff and entire community brought joy to my soul.”

Whether he’s kissing a pig or helping his teachers become their professional best, Wendell Sumter is a shining example of what Showcase School leaders are doing to advance education. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure, and learn more about how Sumter’s school district, Chester County, is embracing technology here.


What inspired you to become an educator?
My biggest inspiration to become an educator came from my aunt Dianne Singleton. She was an educator for many years and when I was a little boy each year during the summer, she would take me to her school to help prepare her class for the new school year. I would be so excited — as if I was actually preparing my own classroom. I would arrange desks, create bulletin boards, organize book shelves, and place name cards on each student’s desk. It was a joy to be there and to do what I was doing. I am told that as a kid I would teach and preach to the cats and dogs and they would listen.

What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
My proudest moment actually happened recently. We are a Professional Learning Community (PLC). Since 2009, our faculty, staff, and administration have participated in several professional development sessions related to PLC and had the opportunity to attend the Professional Learning Community’s Institute to further enhance its implementation at Great Falls Elementary.

One focus of our school-wide PLC is Explicit Direct Instruction, from DataWORKS. It has been implemented in all classrooms to improve student engagement, as well as to hold all students accountable for their learning. Highlights of the program include calling-on of students by selecting students’ names randomly to respond to questions, so that all students are held accountable in a process called Checking for Understanding.

In addition to EDI, differentiated instruction is taking place in every classroom with focused, data-driven teaching being evident throughout the day. Other initiatives include the CATCH program (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) which includes our Brain Gym, being a Microsoft Showcase School, and working with Winthrop University as a NetSCOPE school (Network of Sustained, Collaborative, Ongoing Preparation for Educators).

Our PLC continues to grow, and we continue to add new tools to support both corporate and individual professional development. This year, the district and school have added Edivation as a resource for contemporaneous development and a means for focused reflective improvement.

Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
The vision of Great Falls Elementary School is to provide the best opportunities possible for our students, staff, and community. It is our desire to use effective technological strategies to engage students in an innovative challenging curriculum that is focused on inquiry-based, hands-on learning.

We envision teachers working collaboratively to create a culture of excellence by using technology to support learning across the curriculum to address the specific needs of students based on assessment data. We also envision our school as an innovative professional learning culture that will collaborate with schools across the world to gain professional knowledge and expertise in innovative instructional strategies.

Any great leader knows that it takes great people to make them a great leader! I have been in education for over 20 years and I’m proud to say that Great Falls Elementary School is a great place to be. The faculty and staff at Great Falls Elementary are some of the most dedicated and selfless educators. They are here before school opens in the mornings and stay until late in the evenings continuing their daily drive toward creating a better tomorrow by educating the children of today!

I am extremely proud of the technological achievements of our school. In 2012, we were named a Microsoft Pathfinder School, 2013 a Mentor School and recently a Microsoft Showcase School. The faculty and staff of Great Falls Elementary are committed to creating educational opportunities where education has no boundaries and creativity abounds; with research-based instructional strategies expanding the capacity of the minds of educators and students, fueled with technological enhancements designed to create world-class students.

Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
I believe the biggest obstacle is [not having] the belief that “Nothing Is Impossible.” We have to remove the limits of where we are from and release the potential to make dreams a reality for all.

In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
I’m excited that we have proven that anything is possible. My yearly goal is to be better than we were the year before, to find and create opportunities that lead to lasting success for our students. This means success not only measured in terms of testing outcomes such as the PASS or upcoming ACT-Aspire, but also in terms of moving each student forward as a 21st century, life-long learner. It’s my hope that all students will rise to their highest potential and that nothing shall prevent them from becoming who they have been destined to become.


About Wendell B. Sumter, Principal, Motivational Speaker and Educational Consultant
Great Falls Elementary School
Columbia, South Carolina, USA

  • Birthplace: Columbia, South Carolina
  • Educational background: Masters in Education Administration, University of South Carolina ,  graduated May 2001; B.S. in Elementary Education, Morris College, graduated Cum Laude
  • Website I check every day:
  • Favorite childhood memory: Going to help my aunt prepare her classroom for the new school year.
  • Favorite book: The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: Surface Pro
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? Never settle for what seems impossible…keep striving for what you know is possible.
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