It was standing room only in the Kershaw County School District (KCSD) board room Tuesday night as parents, teachers and even young students came to express their feelings about the district’s decision to swap five elementary school principals around. Those speaking during the public forum section of a Kershaw County Board of Trustees meeting included six adults and two children.
Earlier Tuesday, the district issued a press release announcing that Midway Elementary School Principal Charles King (a former school board member) and Wateree Elementary School Principal Gaile Stehle would be switching schools. The district also said that Bethune Elementary School (BES) Principal Estelle Benson will become the new leader at Jackson School while Jackson’s principal, Matia Goodwin, will move to Camden Elementary School (CES). CES Principal Carol Przybyla will assume the leadership role at BES.
“These moves will help us best match the skills and talents of our principals with the needs of our schools. Having a new leadership perspective will be beneficial for these schools as we continue our focus on academic achievement and improvement.” KCSD Superintendent Dr. Shane Robbins said in the press release. “These persons will be making their physical moves after this school year is over, and I appreciate the help of all to make these transitions seamless. I know that sometimes change can be difficult, but I have confidence in all of these principals and look forward to a successful 2019-20 school year.”
Wateree Elementary School teacher Lila “Nicky” Marken said she came to represent the school’s faculty in support of Stehle.
“It’s no secret that parents, teachers and school board members view decisions for the schools in the district from very different perspectives,” Marken said. “As a school board, it’s your job to make decisions from the top down. Your main indicators tend to be financials, test scores, school rankings and other data. As teachers, our decisions are made from the bottom up. We base our decisions on the morale of our students and faculty, individual students’ needs versus needs of the class as a whole, and building a safe, supportive learning environment from within our classroom.”
Marken went on to say that part of their jobs is to see their students as “more than a test score” and “more than just the data.” She acknowledged that does not mean that the administration does not consider that type of information, either; only that it’s the teacher’s job to keep track of individual students, while the administration’s is to look at the system as a whole.
Marken said, however, that these differences are why communication between the administration and school board with school faculties is so important.
“Therefore, we’re here in the spirit of open communication to voice our concerns about the decision to shuffle several of the principals to new schools. Based on data, Wateree Elementary became a ‘Priority School’ this year due to an unsatisfactory rating in the area of academic growth, which is not to be mistaken for the category of academic performance in which we continue to rate at the satisfactory level. Regardless, it’s a disappointing and embarrassing link, one which seems to have prompted the removal of our principal,” Marken said.
She said there have been several significant challenges at WES, including a transition to one-to-one computing, a separate transition to a “vastly different” reading curriculum, the end of TERI (the state’s program where retirees used to be allowed to come back to work) leading to increased faculty turnover, and the addition of 200 students in three years due to significant growth in the West Wateree area of the county.
“The point is, any one of these variables would likely cause a temporary dip in the data or render it invalid as the outcome could not be isolated to one specific cause or person,” Marken said. “Regardless, these transitions are behind us and we are moving forward. Our community is strong and involved; the faculty’s morale is high. We work well together and support each other, and continue to work to make ourselves and our school better. We love where we work, which not only provides a safe, healthy environment for learning but also a fun, happy encouraging place for the children to spend so many of their waking hours.
“Above all else, we are loyal. We are loyal to our school district. We are loyal to our students and we are loyal to our administrators. Mrs. Stehle is the reason for this. She is the lynchpin that holds it all together. She knows and cares for the staff and students alike. She recognizes when to encourage them and when to be firm.”
Marken went on to say that teachers have taken what they have learned from Stehle and passed it on to their students and that as a result of her leadership, they are able to offer a positive environment for their students.
“Sadly, moving her will damage the equilibrium we have finally been able to establish since the completion of the many transitions we recently faced. Forcing this change in this way will undoubtedly damage the morale of everyone involved and the trust and loyalty they have for the leadership of our school district. In my experience the recovery from this type of change often takes several years. Therefore, we ask you to reconsider the decision to transfer Mrs. Stehle out of our community, as we believe the cost of such a move will far outweigh the benefits,” Marken concluded.
Alison Motley, president of the WES’ parent teacher organization (PTO), spoke next. Motley said she has three children who have all been part of the WES family. She read from a 2018 Forbes magazine article about forming bonds to strengthen teams. One of its highlights suggested that the best way to have such bonds is to form close, personal relationships with your team members.
“In August 2012, I was sitting in a cafeteria full of strangers. This was my very first time in Wateree. My husband and I both attended Richland 2 schools, so I did not know a single person,” Motley said. “I was sending my first born to kindergarten; I was a wreck. And then Ms. Stehle walked in and she welcomed us and made me some pretty remarkable promises. She promised me that my son would be loved, he would be safe, he would be happy and he would get the best education there is. Not only did she keep her promises, but she exceeded them.”
Motley said Stehle only allows the “absolute best of the best” to teach at the school.
“I understand that grades and reports are important and they help determine so many things, but I think there are so many more important things to focus on. She is part of a community where she loves each student so much. In fact, it is her goal to learn the names of each student in the school within a few months and, yes, she does,” Motely said.
She characterized Stehle as supportive of the parent teacher organization, and appreciative of what the PTO does for the school.
“There is nothing unsatisfactory about Wateree,” Motley declared, claiming that no parent she has spoken with agrees with that rating, and asked what resources the school has been offered to help with any needed improvements. “In the 10 years (Stehle’s) been there, this is the first time she’s seen an unsatisfactory rating, Why is she not being given the time to bring this back up? It obviously took time to get an unsatisfactory, so why not allow Ms. Stehle and her amazing faculty to prove that this information was incorrect?”
Motley challenged the board to visit WES for one day and see what Congressman Ralph Norman said he saw in one hour several months ago: the closeness in the school. She also made it clear that she does not think that whoever becomes the new principal -- in this case, King -- wouldn’t do a good job, but that Wateree is a close family and community that got that way because of Stehle.
Next, Midway Elementary School (MES) PTO member Jason Bittner -- who said he was on the committee that recommended hiring King as principal -- also asked the district to reconsider its decision to send King to another school.
“Midway is affectionately known as the ‘best kept secret is Kershaw County,’” Bittner said. “We are not a school without struggles; we’re not a school with hallways full of academic accolades. However, we are a school full of heart and determination with a faculty willing to push through the obstacles we face on a daily basis to ensure success for every student, everyday.”
Bittner said one of the struggles MES has faced is principal turnover, with King being the fourth principal to lead the school in nine years. He said he has a rising 5th Grade daughter who will, potentially, meet her third principal should the decision to swap King and Stehle stand.
“It’s unfortunate to her and other students who are unable to form lasting and meaningful relationships with one principal before a new one has to be assigned to the school. The faculty and students have been operating on a recurring cycle of instability over the last nine years,” Bittner said, adding that some studies show drops in student achievement after a principal leaves, with the drop lasting up to five years.
He said that has been especially true at Midway.
“As soon as our morale and achievement are increasing, we’re experiencing a change in leadership,” Bittner said. “This creates a critical fluctuation among teachers, students and parents. This study also states that schools with a revolving door in leadership experience a lack of trust, collegiality and ‘buy-in’ from teaching staff and students.”
Bittner acknowledged that change is sometimes necessary, but asked for more time for a principal who is “passionately invested” in the school and community. He also said that many students lack positive male role models in their lives, but that King is that role model, exemplified by his leadership even in critical situations where he knows his children at MES are under his guardianship. Bittner pointed out that King lives in the area and is well-known creating an even stronger factor of trust. He said the community’s concern isn’t that MES won’t continue to succeed or won’t welcome a new principal, but to continue a relationship Dr. King established three years ago, and to close the revolving door of principals there.
After hearing from a parent concerning school safety, Jackson Elementary teacher Faye Solis expressed concerns with having Goodwin moved away from the school. Solis said she was concerned, personally, with the way the decision was made, with little or no input from either educators or parents, including the Kershaw County Teacher Forum -- a point that garnered a round of applause from those gathered.
Solis said she often hears about decisions like these “through the grapevine” before any official word from the district, and usually with not enough time to parents or educators to internalize or respond to those decisions.
“The decisions that are being made often come with no rationale or a very vague one at best,” Solis said. “We also feel like we are more than just numbers. Data can’t drive all of the decisions; there has to be a qualitative measure to this, not just quantitative. We don’t feel like anyone has gotten to know our school or our students before these huge changes are made.”
Solis said based on what she heard earlier speakers say, she felt like each of these schools communities was being broken up, impacting the entire county.
“I want to know how what I perceive as authoritarian leadership is good for the Kershaw County communities that are based in family relations and a close, tight-knit community,” she concluded, followed by loud round of applause.
Chairman James Smith then called a parent of two Jackson students to speak during the forum. She asked that her daughters be allowed to speak. Smith initially declined, stating that it was the parent who signed the sign-up form, eliciting a round of negative comments from the crowd. The woman pointed out that her daughters’ names were on the sheet as well, leading Smith to relent and allow the children to speak, which drew a round of applause. The woman said she felt that the fact that her children were able to sit before the board to express themselves was reflective of the education they are receiving at Jackson through Goodwin’s leadership.
Emma, 9, said, “I am here today because I want to tell you how much I want Ms. Matia Goodwin to stay at Jackson. Ms. Goodwin made Jackson a Leadership School and if Ms. Goodwin was not my principal, I would not be standing up here because I used to not talk in front of people.”
Emma went on to say that she has been at Jackson since kindergarten, has known Goodwin for five years and doesn’t want her to leave.
Her sister, Bailey, 7, quietly told the board that, she too, did not want Goodwin to leave because “she is always nice to us” and has taught her how to achieve goals.
“Please do not take Ms. Goodwin away from us because we will be so sad,” Bailey finished, ending the public forum.
The forum is used as a time not only at school board meetings, but meetings of city and county councils, to receive feedback from the public, but not to interact with them.
Early Wednesday morning, Midway’s King had a message for both his current and future schools that he posted on Facebook.
“First and foremost, I absolutely adore my Midway family. The school and community welcome me (back home to Kershaw County) three years ago with open arms, and my love for the kids, the staff, and the school has only grown over time. Through a lot of hard work, team spirit and determination, we have raised the bar at Midway and we are showing levels of academic and affective success that have not been evident in a long time. I am confident that upward rise will continue because of the dedication of Midway folks,” King said. “However, the superintendent and school board have determined that my skill set and zeal for education can now be utilized at another location. As such, I will be transferred to Wateree Elementary School for the upcoming school year. While I will surely miss my Bodacious Bobcats and the impact they have had on me, I want the folks at my new school to know that I will apply the same passion, dedication, and love for the children there as well. Also, having a happy staff and a satisfied community is very important to me, and I will work diligently to make that happen. Most of all, I appreciate being able to work and serve in the best district ever, Kershaw County!”
King ended his post by asking the Midway “family” to keep in touch and declared to the Wateree Elementary community that what will come “is going to be a fantastic journey.”
“A big lesson I have learned in life is that change is inevitable and we have to learn to embrace it,” King concluded.
In other business, the board approved the district’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget, approved the formation of swim teams at made up of high and middle school students to be based at Camden and Lugoff-Elgin high schools, and recognized 2019 S.C. Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year Khadija Murphy.