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Columbia, S.C. 29201
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Embracing Autonomy to Empower Innovators

In my last piece, I discussed the importance of understanding the “why” behind what we do and who we are. I shared my “why” – why I got started in education and how that propels me forward daily as Superintendent. I firmly believe that starting with a “why” makes a critical difference in outlook and outcome. But this philosophy doesn’t just pertain to individuals. Organizations, companies, and communities that lead with “why” are the best equipped to become powerful change agents in their fields.

super intendent chris neeley with a bow and arrow

Charter education: flexibility for innovation

When it comes to the charter schools in our statewide district, their “why” usually comes from a need to fill a specific educational void in a community. When the standard “one-size-fits-all” approach to education doesn’t fit a family or a teacher, our charter schools step in to offer an alternative solution. Thousands of children, like my son Marsh at Clear Dot Charter, have been able to thrive when their uniqueness is seen as a strength and they’re offered educational solutions that fit their needs and desires.

An essential role of charter schools is to be incubators of innovation and ideas. That is why autonomy is one of the core values that drives all of our work at both the District and the individual school levels. As a District, we believe in giving our schools the independence they need to be creative and unique in how they design solutions for their students. That’s why one of the key pillars of our approach is giving our schools “Flexibility to Operate” – meaning, as we say on our website:

“We provide educators with the flexibility to operate different public schools that focus on specific missions, including performing arts, technology, Montessori, dual-credit, project-based learning, cyberlearning, dual language instruction, and more.” 

This flexibility allows teachers to use their gifts well and provide students with unique programs of study that help them learn, grow, and succeed. Autonomy drives innovation, and innovation means more opportunities for more students here in South Carolina.

Innovation in action: pilots licenses for highschool students

On the Kids First radio show a few months ago, Mary Nell Anthony, the Principal of Greenville Technical Charter High School (GTCHS), told a story that spoke to the power of what can happen when schools are given this kind of freedom to innovate.

One of her physics teachers had come to her one day with a big idea. The teacher had noted a desire among many of his students to pursue careers in aviation, and with nearby Greenville-Spartanburg Airport being one of the fastest-growing airports in the country – and with a commercial pilot crisis underway across the globe – this teacher suggested that GTCHS consider ways in which the school might help to meet those interrelated needs.

The teacher’s passion struck Mary Nell, and since they had the flexibility to innovate within their curricular programming, they began taking the first steps toward what would become GTCHS’s aviation program, a rare and exceptional program that you won’t find at any other high school in South Carolina. 

Based on training and curriculum created by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), this STEM-oriented program allows students to learn the fundamentals of flight and air travel – while in high school. Less than 400 high schools nationwide offer this program, and GTCHS is the first school in our state to do so. But thanks to this program – and to the hard work and innovative thinking of the teachers and staff at GTCHS – students here in South Carolina can graduate high school with a high school diploma…and a pilot’s license.

Programs like this are the result of what happens when schools can embrace innovation. By welcoming the ingenuity of a teacher, Greenville Technical Charter High School has created a program that sends students out into the world who are prepared and ready to meet real needs.

It’s an incredible example of what happens daily in our public charter schools here in South Carolina. Schools, teachers, and students blossom when ideas and individuality are embraced, and high performance follows where flexibility is at the forefront. 

A diverse district of specialized schools

GTCHS and its student-pilots are just the tip of the iceberg for our District, though, and I am so proud of the creativity and innovation happening at all of our schools as they each work to create specialized solutions tuned to the diverse needs of the students in their communities. In coming weeks and months, I’ll share even more examples, but here are just a handful of the things happening across the South Carolina Public Charter School District:

In Beaufort: Lowcountry Montessori was established by community members to provide a distinctly collaborative and experiential environment for learning, and to bring a high-quality Montessori option to families in the Lowcountry.

In Columbia: The Midland Arts Conservatory specifically serves and supports arts-minded middle and high-school-aged students who are interested in pursuing careers in the arts. 

In Sumter: Liberty STEAM Charter has developed a unique curriculum that equips students in Sumter with real-life skills – from training in social-emotional awareness to learning through Engineering Design Processes. These are concrete tools and ways of thinking that will help these students thrive not only academically but also as leaders of the workplace in the 21st century. 

In Greenville and in York: Schools like Greer Middle College and York Preparatory Academy have created opportunities for high school students to experiment and engage with their career interests through dual enrollment courses at their local tech colleges. Not only does this allow students to follow their curiosity, but they also gain a leg up financially and academically as they accrue college credits applicable at most four-year universities.

And all across South Carolina: SC Whitmore, our high school located exclusively online, leans into uniqueness by serving students and families from every corner of our state – through best-in-class virtual and online learning. By providing this free virtual option to all highschool students across the state, our District helps ensure that every highschool student in South Carolina has access to a high-quality education regardless of situation or need.

superintendent chris neeley sits with a child

The charter school difference

When my wife Janie and I struggled to find a school for our son Marsh, who is an IDD student, charter schools stepped in to offer a solution that no other school could. Clear Dot Charter School’s specialized program allows our son to engage with his peers daily, while also giving him one-on-one attention. Sometimes “one-size-fits-all” does not fit all, and every student’s uniqueness is a strength to celebrate – not a hurdle to clear. In recognition of this, the schools in our District will always have the freedom to innovate and operate in ways that put kids first in their communities.

And that will make all the difference.

Kids First,

Chris Neeley