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Education: Community leaders build ties with schools

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The doors open at 7 a.m. at Kensington Elementary School in Georgetown. Not the school doors, the car doors. The principal, Jamie Thompkins, is there to help. Last week, Geales Sands was there, too.

The Bunnelle Foundation where Sands is the executive director is starting its second decade with a focus on places where the needs of youth development intersect with economic vitality. Among those are Georgetown County’s 20 public schools where Sands and other community and business leaders spent a day shadowing the principals. “Getting the businesses and the educators in the same room is a huge step forward,” Sands said.

Principal for a Day was modeled on a program in Horry County. The title is deceptive. Participants don’t make decisions. They observe and interact.

“I actually used to teach. I’d never seen it from an administrative point of view,” said Lauren Joseph, the county’s tourism director. She followed Stephanie Stuckey at Maryville Elementary south of Georgetown. “I was there at 7:30. Within an hour she had already handled so many issues, and with grace and class,” Joseph said.

Stella Mercado, the CEO of the technology firm Mercom, spent the day at Waccamaw Middle. She has worked to build stronger ties between business and the school district. Last year, she shadowed the principal at St. James High School in Horry County.

“This was my first Waccamaw school,” said Mercado, who also serves on the board of Coastal Montessori Charter School. “I was impressed by the level of caring.”

She followed principal Jamie Curry on classroom visits, attended a counseling session with an eighth-grader and his parents to plan the transition to high school and watched Curry deal with a discipline issue.

And there was something else Mercado doesn’t see in her day job: a fax machine. “I was stunned,” she said. Why not take a picture of the document on a smartphone and e-mail it to the recipient, whose e-mail address was on the document?

Teachers told her they would like to adopt a “flipped classroom” model where lectures are recorded on video to view at home and the creative activities that are assigned as homework for the basis of class work. But the school doesn’t have enough laptops. And not all the students have access to the Internet. Mercado suggested developing video that can be loaded on smartphones.

“It’s clear teachers want to use technology,” Mercado said. But what she saw at Waccamaw Middle reinforced the idea that it is engagement, not the technology that is key. Students in a social studies class learned about the Berlin Wall by dividing into two groups: East Germans who gave up their consumer goods and West Germans who kept theirs. “The kids were engaged. They had learned what it was like,” Mercado said. “You’ve got to engage the kids, whatever the medium.”

The first order of the day at Waccamaw Intermediate was a parents meeting, which Carolyn Ellis attended with principal Tim Carnahan. Ellis is a former English teacher and now an advocate for education issues through the foundation she runs with her husband Cliff, the men’s basketball coach at Coastal Carolina University. Carnahan explained that the school is moving toward teaching that’s based on inquiry. “They’re not just listening and absorbing. They want to know the information to answer questions and solve problems,” Ellis said.

Like all the participants, she kept on the move. “Dr. Carnahan measured that he walks 4 miles a day in the school, and I agree with that,” Ellis said. Yet she came away convinced that education has to reach beyond the school building. “Too often we put the onus on the school system to solve all our problems that relate to moving educational needles. In reality, that is too large a burden. It is the responsibility of us all,” Ellis said.

Others agreed. “What it reminded me of is we don’t know what baggage those kids carry when they get off the bus in the morning. I think it is a lot,” Sands said. “The biggest education that’s needed is not in the classroom walls. It’s at home.”

Sheriff Lane Cribb knows better than many what some children face at home. He saw that shadowing principal Teddy Graham at Pleasant Hill Elementary. It’s in the same community where Cribb grew up. He attended the old red-brick school that has since been closed and sold. When students got a failing grade, they “got a lick” for every point below the passing grade.

“From what I see, kids are having a hard time at home. Parents are not responsible,” Cribb said. “Some of the things the principal had to deal with … it’s just kind of sad.”

“All in all, it’s a great school,” he added.

“I think sometimes Georgetown schools get a bad rap, even compared against those on the [Waccamaw] Neck,” Joseph said. “We have good schools all over the county.”

That was what the district wanted participants to see, said Fedrick Cohens, the district’s family literacy coordinator who organized the program. “The goal for the day was to bridge the gap between business and schools,” he said. The district will make it an annual event and may consider doing it more often, Cohens said.

“It’s something the community has to address,” Ellis said. “How business, nonprofits, churches, all of us can produce quality children citizens.”

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