Clemson education professors listen, learn on field trip to S.C.’s ‘Corridor of Shame’
CLEMSON — Sixteen professors and administrators from Clemson University’s College of Education gathered recently in the cool morning hours in a parking lot behind Memorial Stadium where they climbed into two big white vans and hit the road for a two-day field trip into South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame.”
They were headed to visit school districts along Interstate 95 to learn from local educators about their struggles with inequitable school funding and poor student achievement. They also hoped to build lasting relationships with them.
This was one step in a long-term commitment to help underserved schools in the state, which Clemson University is bound by design to do, said George Petersen, the founding dean of Clemson’s College of Education.
“We have a responsibility because we’re a land-grant institution,” he said. “We’re not a regional campus and we’re not a flagship campus that just does research. Our moral imperative is to improve education across the state and to create sustainable models for others to use.”
The group made the three-hour drive southeast from Clemson to Orangeburg, where they visited Mellichamp Elementary School, then to Cordova where they visited Edisto High School. The next day, they drove an hour and a half to Lake City and Lamar, where they visited J. Paul Truluck Elementary School and Lamar High School, respectively.
The trip took them through bucolic farmland and along once-thriving thoroughfares now dotted with abandoned hotels and entire small towns that are all but boarded up, the industries that supported them having long ago moved elsewhere. As businesses left, generations of rural South Carolinians were trapped in a cycle of substandard childhood education, no job opportunities as adults and no clear pathway up and out of their circumstances.
It’s a vicious cycle, as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham pointed out in the 2005 documentary “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.”
“We have a disparity of funding in [that] region of our state,” Graham said in the video. “The reason we have disparity in funding is… because we collect taxes based on property values. Property values in those counties are low because there’s no industry.”
At each school, the group from Clemson met teachers, principals, and superintendents who are in the thick of the battle to brighten the future for the children in these underserved areas. It’s a battle they all passionately agree can be won with the right help.
“We’ve always looked up to Clemson,” said Mellichamp Principal Hayward Jean, in his seventh year leading the small elementary school in Orangeburg. “This experience means so much because Clemson is realizing, as they are leading the state, that in order to prepare our [future] teachers, we must go where we want them to go. Clemson is a trendsetter and we are standing with them on this fight for education. I hope this is a trend that goes all over South Carolina and the nation.”
Petersen selected faculty from a cross section of disciplines that included teaching and learning, special education, leadership growth and development, school and district governance, and counseling. The diversity of expertise will help them get a broad view of what next steps they can take, he said.
The Clemson contingent didn’t make the trip assuming they had all the answers to the schools’ problems, said Roy Jones, professor and executive director of Clemson’s groundbreaking Call Me MISTER program, which recruits young men from diverse backgrounds to teach in the lowest performing schools.
“The emphasis is truly on listening,” said Jones. “We initiated this as a good neighbor. We don’t want our approach to be misconstrued in terms of our motive – this is not a setup for Clemson to do what benefits Clemson. That’s the last thing we want.”
Kathryn Lee D’Andrea, professor of practice for the College of Education and co-organizer of the trip with Jones, agreed.
“We’re not assuming to go right now with a fix. If a doctor started writing you a prescription before you even started telling him what your symptoms are, that would not be a very astute approach,” she said. “So our vision is to go begin that conversation.”
Said Jones, “This is South Carolina – everything is built on relationships. You do nothing in this state without having authentic and often long-term relationships.”
“When Dabo [Swinney, Clemson Tigers head football coach] was first hired he was all about relationships,” said D’Andrea. “Now he can go into a home anywhere in South Carolina and people trust him, but it didn’t start that way. He developed that. We want people to trust us like that, and that’s what this trip is about.”
Several of the people they met on the trip are Clemson graduates, including 1999 alumnus Jeanette Altman, the principal of J. Paul Truluck Middle School in Lake City.
Becoming a teacher in a struggling community often is not a conscious career choice, said Altman, who did not pursue teaching at Clemson, graduating with a degree in industrial engineering. She became an engineer for Michelin and lived the corporate life, but soon found herself wondering what good she was doing. She gave up that career to move to Lake City with her husband to become a teacher.
“Being in this area is a service,” she said. “It’s about finding purpose in what you’re doing.
“I grew up in Spartanburg, and I wasn’t rich by any means, but our school was not underprivileged,” she said. “I wasn’t used to the kind of poverty that I see here. The first year in the classroom as a math teacher was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – harder than any class I took at Clemson. But the change and the education that I provided to those students, and seeing that lightbulb go off, was addicting. I definitely felt a call.”
Most of the schools in the “Corridor of Shame” are tiny, which also can lead to funding issues.
To give one an idea: Laura Hickson, the superintendent of Florence School District 3, said there are a little more than 3,700 students total in the district, with most of the schools serving about 500 students. Tim Newman, superintendent of Orangeburg School District 4, said it has two buildings where 300 kindergartners to fifth-graders learn on one side and 300 sixth- to 12th-graders are on the other side.
At Lamar High School, principal Kathy Gainey held the Clemson visitors’ attention as she described the circumstances many of her students grow up in: poverty, gang violence and abuse that sound more like stories from the inner cities of Chicago or Los Angeles, not a tiny farm town in South Carolina.
In spite of those challenges, Gainey’s school has achieved a 96 percent graduation rate and a 99 percent teacher retention rate. The secret to the school’s success comes from the zero-tolerance culture Gainey has cultivated through sheer force of will.
A diminutive woman with a crisp bob haircut, Gainey demands respect from every person who steps foot in her school. Violence and threats are not tolerated, so teachers feel safe in their classrooms.
Finding and cultivating more leaders like Gainey and the other principals and superintendents the team met on the tour is Clemson’s long-term plan, with Petersen already standing up a doctoral program to produce principals and superintendents for primary schools.
Each administrator and teacher who met with the Clemson cohort expressed excitement about what might come from the visit. They all echoed the same needs, not just for good teachers and administrators, but those who will stay in their schools and communities for significant amounts of time. That’s where Clemson can help. Its programs like Call Me MISTER, Reading Recovery, Emerging Scholars and the new Teacher Residency program are designed with that exact goal in mind.
The Clemson educators recognizes that emphasizing service is a key to the success of South Carolina’s struggling schools. None of the educators they visited are getting rich doing what they do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rich rewards. Watching Principal Jean high-fiving and hugging one child after another as he walked the hallways of Mellichamp school, or seeing Principal Gainey choke up as she talks about how nobody thought the kids in her district had a chance for success, not even the kids themselves – it’s easy to see how fulfilling working in these schools can be.
“Every student deserves a good education,” said Altman. “It’s difficult to recruit and retain teachers in rural areas, but they’re the students that need us the most. This is an area where you can change the world.”