A conversation with Clemson alum and SC superintendent of the year
Burke Royster, superintendent of Greenville County Schools, was recently named the 2018 South Carolina Superintendent of the Year by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. Education Week also recognized Royster as a “Leader to Learn From,” which has basically cemented his reputation as a superlative administrator in South Carolina and beyond.
Royster credits a great deal of his success to his time at Clemson University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education political science and a master’s degree in education administration. We caught up with Royster as the school year wound down to discuss his recent honor, his years at Clemson and what it’s like to serve as superintendent to one of the nation’s largest school districts.
Michael Staton: What was your response to news of being named superintendent of the year?
Burke Royster: I was very honored because, just like winning a teacher of the year award, I was selected by an association made up of my peers. The other aspect is it reflects greatly on Greenville County schools. To me this honor reflects the hard work of not just me, but the many people that make up this school system.
MS: Greenville County Schools employs over 9,600 employees and serves more than 76,000 students. What’s it like serving an area that big?
BR: Greenville is an 800-square-mile, physically large county. During a normal school day, if our employees and students made up a city population, we’d be the fifth largest city in the state. That gives some perspective, but on the school level most people don’t notice that because most interactions are with a specific school. We have schools with less than 300 students and high schools with more than 2,200 students. Most people think about downtown Greenville and certainly that’s a great attraction but we have a series of smaller communities, large farming areas and rural areas. We’re urban, suburban and rural.
MS: What are the challenges with addressing those different populations?
BR: Every community is unique, and our schools reflect their communities. While the district sets expectations and holds principals accountable as the leaders of the school in their community, we give them the flexibility to shape their school’s program to fit their community while meeting our expectations. Another key to success is to ensure that there is equity of opportunity for the people we serve no matter where they live.
MS: You’ve been a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent. Considering the many hats you’ve worn, was there a particular role that was more challenging or rewarding?
BR: I’ve been fortunate my whole career in that I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve had and every school and district I’ve worked in. I particularly enjoyed being a high school principal because of the daily interaction with students. I still take advantage of every opportunity to meet with students, but that’s different from walking out your door every day and being among hundreds of students. I miss that aspect. I enjoyed teaching, coaching and serving as a principal, but wanted greater influence. I grew up in a family of educators. My dad was a school superintendent, so I saw the impact that could have, and there was an appeal there to move into a role like the one I’m in now where you are able to have more impact.
MS: What do you think you’ve done in your time as superintendent to make an impact?
BR: Our Graduation Plus (G-Plus) Program is one thing that has the most potential to make a great impact. G-Plus is a series of programs; the “plus” being the college credit in areas students would major in and/or an industry-recognized certification. We want our students to graduate with more than just a diploma; we want them to already be taking their next step. Everything else we do is in support of that goal. It gives us a level of accountability that you can’t get from a test score. These programs aren’t a speculative thing because they show the students have already done it and earned it. We’re on the front end of the program and more and more students are taking advantage of it. In many schools, we’ve doubled and tripled college transfer course enrollment. We’ve increased enrollment in some career programs by over 500 percent.
MS: What do you continue to take from time at Clemson University?
BR: I had outstanding professors in education, political science and every other discipline. I even got a letter from Dr. Walton Owens Jr. congratulating me on being named superintendent of the year. Receiving that letter was really meaningful to me. My professors provided a great foundation for administration, and honestly the political science undergraduate courses prepared me well for administration. I had courses that people wouldn’t normally have until graduate school. I still come to Clemson to follow sports, and I’ve been an IPTAY member since 1980. I follow basketball and baseball a little bit, too. I did get my Ph.D. from another university (laughs) in the middle of the state, but I don’t always reveal where I got it. That Ph.D. doesn’t change my allegiance during football season in any way.