1824 Barnwell Street
Columbia, S.C. 29201
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Halfway There: A Mid-Year District Check-In

The famous 19th-century painting “The Great Wave” by Japanese artist Hokusai took over 30 years to complete. This may seem like extreme perfectionism – an unnecessary amount of time for a 10”x 14” painting. But Hokusai wasn’t just trying to paint a great picture. He was trying to create his ultimate masterpiece, and he was willing to spend years and decades studying other art forms and artists and making many early versions of this great painting so that he could get his one masterpiece right.

Excellence requires dedication. And getting to that desired end state requires commitment and discipline.

Hokusai’s “why” wasn’t just to produce a great painting. His “why” was to create the ultimate expression of his creative mission and artistic vision. 

And it took mastering his craft to get there. 

At the District, we have been striving to imitate this dedication in all we do – to put in the time and commitment to help create a powerfully impactful educational model that will stand the test of time here in our great state.

So as we come to the holidays and get close to the end of this first semester, I’ve found myself reflecting on the past few months and taking stock of where we are as a District relative to the goals we set for ourselves heading into this school year. Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of how our District – from the board to the classroom – has worked to put Kids First through goal-setting and persistent hard work to reach those goals. So, I’d like to share those goals with you today, and show you how we’re doing in our progress towards them.

Back in July, our District’s leadership established these three goals for the 2022-2023 school year:  

1: To be masters of our craft. 

2: To make sure that our mission, vision, and values are aligned in all we do – from our budgeting and our use of resources all the way down to what’s happening in the classroom itself. 

3: To remember the kids in the margins. 

Here are some real-life examples of just a few of the ways that our District has been working toward and meeting these goals:

Goal 1: Mastering our craft 

Like Hokusai, we are religiously looking for ways to master our craft. District-wide, at a high level, for all of us this means putting out the highest quality public education possible in innovative and accessible ways that ensure that all kids here in South Carolina have their unique educational needs met.

For us here in my office of District staff, that means ensuring that every school in our District has a firm foundation of well-equipped individuals to set it up for success – and we do this by helping ensure that our staff, board members, and school leaders all have the resources needed to grow and learn together. 

One of the ways we’ve been able to do this is through the Kids First Conference right here in Columbia. This September, charter school leaders from across the state came together for two days full of professional development, fun, and collaboration. This was the second annual Kids First Conference, but it is part of a longtime effort to work with The Charter Institute at Erskine to define and promote a unified Kids First vision across both of our districts. 

This event is not just another educator’s conference; there is truly no other event like it. The knowledge our charter school leaders get to share with each other is invaluable. The Kids First Conference helps us all master our craft as we lean in together to meet the specific needs of charter students in South Carolina. 

Another way we have been working toward mastery is by implementing “micro-learning” (or “micro-training”) into our monthly board meetings. In 2021, when our board came together to create our strategic plan, we agreed that one of our biggest priorities was ensuring each member of our District – including board members – knew the importance of his or her role, and took that responsibility seriously. One practical outflow of this was our goal of helping our board members become equipped with the tools they needed to be informed and equipped board members.  For example, this year we have brought on Stan Davis, a Leadership Development Consultant from the Upstate, to lead our board in brief monthly learning sessions. His knowledge and experience have been extremely useful, and we always learn something new about how we can better lead and work together when he speaks to us.

But conferences, training, and working to master our craft are all vain efforts if our mission, vision, and values are not aligned and integrated into every aspect of our work, down to the smallest detail.

Goal 2: Aligning our “why” with our work

As a District, we believe integrity is crucial, and that is why it is one of our core values here. If our work is not done with integrity – and with keeping our kids at the top of our priority list – then we have lost our way.

This is why we hold ourselves to a high standard of alignment across everything we do with our District. Our official mission statement states that our District “authorizes, champions, and supports the creation and advancement of innovative K-12 public charter schools that provide access to academic opportunities for every student in South Carolina to reach their fullest potential.” What we strive to do goes far beyond the authorization and creation of our charter schools; it is first and foremost about giving kids in South Carolina the best shot possible.

One way we have worked to ensure philosophical alignment across our entire district is through the Kids First Podcast we launched this semester. 

Over the years, we had noticed there were not many people out there (even at a national level) talking about charter schools, explaining how they work, and addressing the myths about them. Further, there were few, if any, voices talking specifically about charter education in South Carolina, where the needs were, and what we could do to meet those needs. We saw a gap here – a place where conversations about charter schools could be had and shared, and in a public-facing way that encouraged broad distribution in support of charter education statewide.

So we decided to do something about it. 

And that’s why we started the Kids First Podcast.

People are drawn into stories because we can identify with them on a personal level. That’s why we have set out on this mission to share real stories, from real people, about how real lives are being changed through the power of school choice. The Kids First Podcast is our first step towards doing this. We’ve talked with leaders like our board chair John Payne; the Superintendent of the Charter Institute at Erskine, Cameron Runyon; incoming State Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver; and even my wife, Janie. We will continue to have conversations with school leaders, teachers, students, and parents to hear their “why,” and we look forward to promoting the efforts of everyone in our District through sharing these “Kids First” stories. 

(Reaching our goals for excellence in alignment doesn’t stop with this podcast either, by the way. Our weekly Kids First Radio Show, our public reach and the quality of our reputation online, and our relationships with our schools are all areas where we are actively working to make strides and to tighten the alignment of our mission, vision, and values into our work itself. We wouldn’t be who we are without the tens of thousands of dedicated students, teachers, and school leaders in our District. Ensuring that each individual in all 38 of our schools feels supported and seen is crucial. )

Goal 3: Remembering the kids in the margins (from Ridgeland to Hartsville)

What could a dishwasher possibly have to do with a school district?

Earlier this year I saw a diagram of Beko’s new dishwasher spray arm. While most standard dishwashers release water in a circular pattern, thus unavoidably missing some areas in the corners, Beko’s engineers used creative thinking to innovate and come up with something different. They developed a new arm design that allows for the water to reach into every corner of the dishwasher, leaving no surface untouched. When I saw the image of the dishwasher spraying water in a square, something struck me. 

This is exactly what we are doing – and should never stop doing! – at the District. Investing our time, energy, and resources into out-of-the-box education solutions allows us to reach every corner of  South Carolina – including the places that traditionally have been “missed.” One of our core values is relationships, so as we work towards alignment, we must prioritize all families in South Carolina, wherever they might happen to live. From the Lowcountry to the Pee Dee, and from the Midlands to the Appalachian foothills of our Upstate, no child in the great state of South Carolina should be without the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. 

The “Corridor of Opportunity” (sometimes referred to as the “corridor of shame”) is a group of roughly 17 rural counties along I-95 reaching from the Lowcountry to the Pee Dee. All of these counties fall at or below the poverty line, and the education funding is tragically insufficient. The consequences are heartbreaking. Kids cannot be put first in these educational environments, and it is our duty to help these communities find solutions.

Polaris Tech in Ridgeland. Lowcountry Montessori and Bridges Preparatory in Beaufort. Felton Laboratory in Orangeburg. Liberty STEAM in Sumter. Butler Academy in Hartsville. Pee Dee Math, Science & Technology Academy in Bishopville.

These schools have become life-changing places for some of the kids living in these rural communities. But there is more work to be done, there are more schools to be established, and there is more awareness that needs to be created. Right now, we are dedicated to supporting our schools along the Corridor of Opportunity with the resources they need to expand and reach more students in their communities, and we are equally committed to using our platforms to remind South Carolina of the corners of our state that historically have been systematically missed.  

Forward together: Where we’re going

This has been an incredible school year so far, but it is only the first semester, and we aren’t even done yet!

Our core goals will stay the same as we enter the second semester in 2023. We will continue to master our craft together through learning, collaborating, training, planning, and setting thoughtful goals. From the classroom to the school board room, we will hold ourselves to the patience and persistence of Hokusai as he created The Great Wave. As we approach the General Assembly in January, we will remain dedicated to putting Kids First by aligning our mission, vision, and values in all we do. 

In all these tactical and strategic efforts, our sights are set on the marginalized in our state. We must constantly ask ourselves how we can serve those who need to be served and bring to light those who remain unseen.

I am beyond grateful and humbled to be a part of all we are doing here at the District. It is a joy to see how our schools, teachers, staff, and board members put Kids First in everything they do, and I cannot wait to see what we will continue to do as we move forward together. 

Kids First,