Chris Neeley never thought he would lead a life serving the youth of South Carolina, but one year into his administration as superintendent of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, he’s doing just that. Superintendent Neeley sat down with Campbell Mims to reflect on his first year, celebrate the wins and reveal what he’s most excited about in his second year.
Campbell: Superintendent Neeley, today marks your first anniversary leading the South Carolina Public Charter School District (SCPCSD). As you reflect on the past year, what are you most proud of as the Superintendent?
Superintendent Neeley: First of all, it’s been an honor leading the district this past year. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would be a public school superintendent, I would have said you must be mistaking my life for someone else’s. My wife Janie was the educator in the family. But as destiny would have it, God had a plan for my life, and He gave me invaluable leadership experiences in the military, business, and education that have prepared me for this moment. I genuinely believe I’m right where I’m supposed to be. In terms of what I’m most proud of, it’s our team and how they put Kids First.
I love our team and the culture we’re building together. I’m proud of the way they persevered, innovated, and collaborated during the pandemic. I’m proud of how they used this moment to explore better ways of executing their jobs in the service of our school partners. It wasn’t easy, but they demonstrated a great capacity to perform at a high level during one of the most challenging periods in American education history. I couldn’t be prouder of them — I’m excited about our shared future together.
Campbell: What were some of the goals you set out to accomplish when you accepted the job?
Superintendent Neeley: Since I was coming to the district with a certain amount of knowledge about it, having been a former school leader and advocacy advisor for the district, I knew we had some work to do to rebuild the culture, improve our support services, improve relationships with stakeholders, and fully align our mission with state statute. So, my first job coming in was to assess where we were as a team by learning and listening; then, building alignment by strategically organizing ourselves into a high-performing culture — a team united by a new mission, vision, and values. This included the creation of a new organizational structure that is horizontal versus the traditional vertical model. I wanted the team to visually see themselves on a team that operates on the same plane heading in the same direction.
Our next objective was to have the board lead a strategic planning process that included the entire staff, and assessments from key stakeholders such as our school leaders, school board members, and legislative leaders. I felt it was important for everyone globally involved in the district to have a voice in what the district looks like and the direction it’s heading. I’m proud to say that our board officially voted last month to approve a new strategic plan which will be our blueprint for the next five years.
I’m also proud of the relationships we’ve built this past year, starting with the Memorandum of Agreement we signed with the Charter Institute at Erskine, our improved relations with Superintendent Molly Spearman and the Department of Education, and meaningful and collaborative engagements with members of the General Assembly and Governor McMaster. Our ability to work with these partners is essential not only for the future of the district, but the future of public education in South Carolina.
Campbell: So, what’s next in your second year at the SCPCSD?
Superintendent Neeley: First of all, I’m very excited about our new strategic plan and the direction that will give us for the next five years. And part of that plan includes looking for ways to expand educational choice in parts of the state where there is no choice; more specifically, the I-95 corridor, or as I like to refer to it, the corridor of opportunity. I believe every child in South Carolina deserves to have access to a high-quality public school that meets them where they are and builds in them a foundation of hope, knowledge, and confidence — the keys to pursuing their American Dream.
Secondly, working with the other two statewide authorizers and legislative leaders, we need to develop a long-term sustainable funding formula for the future of charter schools. We can no longer grow and operate under an annual budget proviso. By placing charter schools on a line in the budget, the state of South Carolina will be making a statement that charter schools are now a permanent institution in our state. It will then be up to us to live up to that standard and ensure that we fulfill our obligation to authorize and charter high-quality schools that put kids first.
Finally, my first year was intentionally inward-focused and on improving our organization so that we could better serve our schools. This fall, I will be shifting my focus outward to better understand the challenges and needs of our school leaders and school boards. I look forward to getting back into school buildings and classrooms later this month to visit and talk with teachers and students. I want to hear firsthand how we, as their district, while recognizing their independence, can better serve them.
Campbell: In closing, do you have anything else you want to say on this first work anniversary for you at the district?
Superintendent Neeley: I want to thank my family for supporting me this past year and for all their encouragement. I also want to thank the board of trustees for having confidence in me and placing me in this leadership position at this particular time. And I want to thank my staff for all of their support, positive attitudes, and their passion for our scholars. Working in education is a thankless job, but I can’t think of a more noble cause than knowing that together we are working to help educate the next generation of Americans who will lead our communities, state, and nation in the years to come. I believe charter schools are playing an integral role at this time in history in producing those next leaders. Kids First!