There is not much we'd spend $1,200 on — no matter how pretty the picture looks on the flat-screen TV.
But the Charleston County School District has maintained a multi-year relationship with high school consultant Sandy Brossard, who describes herself as a "school improvement coach." At a rate of $1,200 a day, Brossard works in Charleston County high schools more than 80 days out of the year — the majority of that is paid for through state aid, but some local high school's administrators spend from their own budget for her expertise.
District staff say consultants are working in districts across the nation and typically cost much more and provide a lot less.
Principals who have worked with Brossard say you can't put a price on her help.
A former teacher, administrator, and assistant superintendent, Brossard left the daily grind in 1998, moving to a full-time role as a consultant for districts utilizing the popular High Schools That Work reform model. Brossard's rural South Carolina school district was one of the first to implement HSTW, drawing national attention for its success, particularly in curbing the district's dropout rate.
"The intent was that I would do a little consulting," Brossard says. The result was a crowded calendar that has left her turning away schools.
In 2004, she was asked to evaluate Charleston schools, first working with Wando, Lincoln, and Stall high schools. Until 2006, her contract was paid for through a state grant. When that grant ended, the district negotiated with her for a lower fee (cutting about $500 off per day) so it could afford to keep her on.
"I said, 'These schools have made tremendous progress, but they aren't where they want to be,'" she says. "And that wasn't me saying it, that was them saying it — saying they're not ready to lose that other set of eyes coming in and helping."
When Dan Conner took over at Stall High School a few years ago, Brossard was already working at the school.
"That was the best thing to walk into," he says. "There's no way to put a value tag on what she means for our school."
For example, the school wanted to improve its special needs program last year.
"We didn't have a vision, we just knew we wanted to help our kids," Conner says.
Based on her experience working with a similar project in a Delaware school, Brossard offered up her suggestions on the problems they faced. Stall put in a kitchen, embroidery room, and a student store for the special needs students over one summer.
"She was our 'How To' showing us the guidelines," Conner says. "What people don't understand is the money it saves when you can be very direct and specific about what you want to do, instead of traveling all over God's creation and floundering. Sandy saves us more money than she'll ever cost us."
Brossard also provides teacher training, curriculum-wide and classroom-level evaluations, and principal support on how to continue the HSTW model. She's only in each school three or four days a year, but Brossard says she's constantly seeking out new ideas she can pass on, either during her visits or through continued consultation with principals after she's gone.
Results have included an 11 percent jump in the district's graduation rate this year, with schools she works with directly showing some of the strongest gains, says district spokesman Elliot Smalley. The district also says it's seen its highest scores ever on nationally recognized advanced placement and academic achievement tests.
Utilized in more than 30 states, High Schools That Work is a leading reform model that focuses on 10 key practices. All high schools in Charleston County are moving toward the HSTW model based on the success seen at the campuses where it's already in place.
Brossard was first introduced to HSTW when she was promoted to assistant superintendent in the Lexington 4 school district with a mandate to improve its struggling high school.
"I told them, 'I don't want to do another program. I don't want to be on another bandwagon,'" she says.
HSTW targets basic reading, math, and science proficiences, college preparation, and on-time graduation. The 10 key practices focus on high expectations, a challenging and engaging curriculum, and real-world problem solving. It also encourages teachers to work together with a commitment toward continued improvement.
The success or failure of these schools can sometimes depend on the support of consultants like Brossard. When aspects of the program aren't implemented smoothly, it can cause hurt feelings and animosity among staff members that can set the process back for years, she says.
During one recent visit to an unnamed high school, not necessarily in Charleston County, Brossard says she could tell the school wasn't challenging its students.
"Kids weren't being asked to think," she says. "I'm the person with the outside set of eyes and ears who provides the neutral perspective — the fresh eyes. Sometimes it's hard for people to see the obvious."
In the process of implementing HSTW, Burke High Principal Charles Benton says Brossard coordinated staff efforts to develop a literacy plan and has helped with preparing teacher assessments.
"We want to make sure we're doing the right things that will affect student achievement," Benton says. "She can help you with it, because she's been a part of it."
In another instance, Conner was looking to change his school's discipline procedures for tardies. After a quick e-mail to Brossard, he had at least a dozen suggestions by the end of the day from principals across the country about what they did and the challenges they faced.
"It's almost like she is a bank of knowledge," Conner says. "Twenty-four seven."
Statewide budget cuts have forced Stall to cut Brossard — and may lead other schools to do the same. But Conner says she still offers input and aid when he needs it.
"Even Tiger Woods needs a coach," says Associate Superintendent Louis Martin. There may be few Tiger Woods in the Charleston County School District, but, every once and a while, everyone needs a little help on the back nine.