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College of Education

Inquiry Matters in Professional Development School-Districts

Submitted by Heidi Mills

Inquiry Matters: The Power and Potential of University-Public School Partnerships

School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties and the University of South Carolina joined hands on April 27, 2019 to successfully launch parallel Inquiry Matters conferences for 400 pre-service and in-service educators across the state. The elementary conference was held at Dutch Fork Elementary Academy of Environmental Sciences while Irmo Middle School hosted a concurrent event dedicated to middle and high school teachers. Both conferences shared a common vision and structure while differentiating to truly meet the diverse needs and interests of teachers across grade levels and content areas.

The elementary version of the annual spring conference originated at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Richland School District Two. It was there that the conference gained popularity and momentum as a powerful annual professional development venue. The middle and secondary conference followed suite this year by embracing common features institutionalized from its inception at CFI:


  • Teachers are at the heart of the conference, just as they are at the heart of our profession.
  • Classroom teachers and their students conduct authentic presentations in the context of real classrooms, to show what teaching and learning through inquiry looks, sounds, and feels like.
  • Presenters illuminate how students learn to inquire, communicate, and share their understandings as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists.
  • Students share their social action projects and service learning engagements through exquisite informative and heartfelt exhibits.
  • Teachers, coaches, and administrators demonstrate the power and potential of an inquiry stance for ongoing professional development.
  • The conference foregrounds and honors the brilliance, experience and expertise in our own professional community.


Pre-service teachers from USC’s elementary program and in-service teachers from partner schools across the state consistently rave about the Inquiry Matters’ content, form, and impact on their practice. Year after year, participants describe it as being both informative and transformative. This year’s feedback maintained its positive trend with comments like:


  • “I am speechless, actually. There is so much to carry back for improved practice and action.”
  • “I learned that hope is a verb.  I am energized and my passion is stirred each time I attend this conference.”
  • “The passion for education within this conference has inspired me to follow my dream of becoming an educator.”
  • “Teaching students how to think is the most important job of teachers.”
  • “Inquiry is vital! Not only for students, but teachers as well.”
  • “WOW!  I didn’t think this experience would change me like it has.”
  • “As a future teacher, I feel that this conference has helped me grow so much in my understanding of how to create a strong and culturally relevant classroom.”


The professional conversations, engagement, thoughtful questions, and feedback across sessions at Irmo Middle School demonstrated success as well. Participants reflected with comments such as:


  • “Inquiry Stance… YESSS! I am interested in connecting our IB data teams and IB community with USC. Woohoo!”
  • “I learned so much! I cannot wait to bring these ideas back to my department and school.”  
  • “Let’s create that path and leave a trail. Inquiry matters with programs, matriculation, access, and equity. Let’s do this!” 
  • “I loved all of the techniques and tools that my teachers and I are able to take back to our schools and classrooms.”
  • “When is the next conference? I would love to go to another one like this!” 


Partnership Roots Run Deep

Like most truly transformative ideas, individuals or initiatives, they grow out of intense, thoughtful collaborations. In this case, the accomplishments of the 2019 Inquiry Matters conferences can be traced to the seeds that were planted twenty-three years ago when the College of Education and Richland School District Two joined hands to create the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a small-school partnership grounded in inquiry-based instruction. The elementary school and partnership have grown deep roots and are still thriving. Together they are continually working to bring their mission to life:

The students, parents and staff of the Center for Inquiry, a genuine collaboration between the University of South Carolina and Richland School District Two, are responsible for developing ourselves as more thoughtful, caring and intelligent people who delight in learning and are committed to creating a more compassionate, equitable, knowledgeable and democratic world!

Soon after opening its doors in 1996, CFI became a national demonstration site for inquiry in the classroom as well as inquiry for ongoing professional development and continuous school renewal. In fact, the Consortium for Inquiry-based Instruction emerged as a grassroots support network for schools across North and South Carolina. CFI hosted annual Consortium for Inquiry-based Instruction meetings to offer intentional and systematic support to partner schools. Eventually CFI and USC expanded this onsite professional development model to include both pre-service and in-service teachers by launching the annual spring Inquiry Matters conference.


The Professional Development School-District

School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties and the University of South Carolina officially launched an innovative Professional Development School-District (PDS-D) partnership in September 2018. The PDS-D model’s vision focuses on long-term systematic improvement across District Five with an emphasis on enhancing the social, emotional, and physical well-being of students and staff. Through collaborative efforts the PDS-D goals emphasize ongoing learning opportunities for teachers, staff, administrators, USC teacher candidates, and most importantly, PK-12 students. Of the three PDS-D goals, one of these goals consists of collectively hosting the elementary and secondary Inquiry Matters conferences.

It was Dean Pedersen’s commitment to sustaining the Inquiry Matters conference across partnerships and Christina Melton’s vision to expand its reach to serve K-12 educators. Their focused collaboration made it possible for Cindy Van Buren and Shelly Curcio to successfully cultivate the 2019 Middle and High Inquiry Matters conference with the enthusiastic support of Irmo Middle School principal, Cassy Paschal. Based on positive participant feedback across both conferences, new seeds have been sown to impact K-12 education in South Carolina through genuine inquiry.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.