One of the most important life decisions parents make is where to place their children for primary and secondary education. School options are the largest part of the game. Residents of the River Region are privileged to have options in both public and private institutions in three counties where students can hone their academic successes and develop extra-curricular interests.
With this issue of Augusta magazine’s Guide to Education, we reached out to our local Aiken, Columbia and Richmond County superintendents and learned how each school district is handling the unique challenges they have faced during the past two years. We also share how their continued vision is supporting the needs of their growing population of families.
Dr. Kenneth Bradshaw | Superintendent
Richmond County School District
What do you consider to be your greatest strength as a superintendent?
As superintendent of schools, my strength is the ability to improve systemwide processes in order to positively impact student achievement and enhance organizational effectiveness.
How are you bridging the gap between virtual learning and in-person learning among students?
Virtual learning amplified the gaps in access to technology across our school system. In some places, we have found that the internet is not available because the infrastructure does not exist, and in other places it was available but the adoption rate for service was low. We know that some of our students have a cell phone, tablet, laptop and a desktop computer and others have no device or internet access available at home. This equity gap is the primary reason we launched a systemwide technology adoption initiative called “PowerUp” to ensure that every Richmond County School System student has access to a computer or web-enabled device to help with assignments, homework and
to bridge the gaps.
Should online learning be considered a permanent option for some students?
The pandemic showed us that some of our students thrived in the online learning environment. That is why we started eSchool for the 2021-22 school year. eSchool is our permanent online learning option that is currently available to students grades 6-12. Going forward, we may consider expanding eSchool to include elementary students. Our core business is in-person learning.
What are the standards you use for judging whether a school system is doing its job?
Student achievement and growth are primarily how I evaluate success. I review a number of measures including, Georgia Milestones, iReady reports, SAT/ ACT/ ASVAB reports, progress on our strategic plan and other
data to assess our performance. Performance is based on different data and standards so it’s important to consider a number of these and look closely at the impact to assess how the system is doing.
Dr. Steven Flynt|Superintendent
Columbia County School District
What are the most important “first steps” a superintendent should take in a new district?
The most important first step for me was building strong relationships. People make all the difference and need to be a large part of the transition. Obviously, learning about the school district, the schools, all the data and the processes are important, but that doesn’t happen without individuals internally and externally working together.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know and meet with many of the wonderful civic organizations and groups here in Columbia County over these past few months, in addition to groups like the Chamber of Commerce, county government, law enforcement and city governments. It is easy to see why Columbia County is such a special place, as we have good people working together on the right work. These relationships will be even more important as we build and continue to improve
on the district’s strong foundation that will take
us into the future.
What have you seen as a positive result of online learning?
We learned that online learning wasn’t the best mode of learning for the majority of students, however, it’s fortunate we had the capability to provide it for our students when needed. Along the way, we continue to learn best practices, better ways of providing that instruction to online students, and areas for improvement for the future. We all learned different ways to engage students and each other by using online platforms, however, we still believe that in-person learning is best for the majority of students.
How could parents and the greater community better support you and the school system?
We encourage parents to stay involved, be a part of the different community teams where they can lend their experience and expertise to support our continued learning and follow up with their students’ progress from home.
Our greater community has really shown that they are willing to support our direction with the current internships and Work-Based Learning opportunities. We’re going to be continuing to expand the program and add additional partnerships, so we’re looking forward to providing an opportunity for future business
or stakeholder groups.
King Laurence | Superintendent
Aiken County School District
In your opinion, what is your role as superintendent of the Aiken County school system?
My role is to provide and maintain the overall vision of the school district while ensuring the community remains focused on our goals. These goals include meeting the needs of students by developing them into future-ready and productive members of society, providing premier learning facilities, and supporting the greater Aiken County community by producing a high-quality workforce for area business.
How are you maintaining state benchmarks given today’s current circumstances? How are you bridging the gap between virtual learning and in-person learning among students?
Once we complete our virtual instruction training for teachers and achieve proficiency in dual-modality we’ll no longer have a gap and the educational experience, whether it be face-to-face or through digital instruction, will be seamless. We are getting better at that every day and we are seeing positive changes going forward. It’s important that we have the ability to adapt to the learning modes that are best for students. Right now, it’s difficult for us to pivot from one mode of instruction to another, but in the near future it will be easy to shift students from one instructional model to another. We are
not there yet, but we are going to get there.
How has the Aiken community supported the school district throughout the last 18 months?
We are so blessed in Aiken County to have such an overwhelmingly positive and supportive community. We already have many excellent partnerships with businesses, community groups and other organizations, but we want to improve and expand what we’ve been doing. The pandemic has provided some unprecedented challenges. It’s been difficult to have the type of consistent engagement with parents and community partners we’ve enjoyed in previous years so we very much look forward to a time when we will have better opportunities to meet and speak with our partners and stakeholders.
The Next Level
Like most of us, Dr. Jermaine Whirl had aspirations of grandeur. He had his sights set on becoming the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
“My goal was to become the next Alan Greenspan,” Dr. Whirl explained with a chuckle.
Fate, however, would set him on a much different path. Today, Dr. Whirl is the president of Augusta Technical College making significant impacts on the lives of young people every single day.
Armed with a degree in economics from Winthrop University, Dr. Whirl began applying for various jobs in the banking sector, but was told he was over-qualified. In his quest to stay the course, he went back to school to get his Masters of Business Administration with a focus in finance and economics.
In the interim, a friend that was working at a local group home called Dr. Whirl to see if he was interested in a job working with kids. “I blew it off three times and then I took a chance as a personal development facilitator,” he said. The job was to help group home kids move out of the system and into work, careers or the military. “I ended up loving that job,” he stated.
The rest is history.
From there, he would be persuaded by a retired college professor (one he had hired to help the children at the group home) to become a professor. This job would serve as a stepping stone to a career path with the technical college system.
“He would not leave me alone,” Dr. Whirl explained with a smile. “You really need to think about teaching.” As fate would have it, he had just finished his MBA when, Dr. Jerry Hunter, president of Charleston Southern University, called him into his office and asked him to create a college from scratch – start to finish. When asked why, Dr. Hunter’s reply was simple: “You are going to be a college president one day.”
Now with an elevated vision, Dr. Whirl set his sights on becoming a dean in three years. Three years later, mission accomplished.
When he arrived at Augusta Technical College in January, Dr. Whirl once again set some pretty big goals for himself and the college.
For Augusta Tech that means the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The award honors the top 150 institutions with outstanding achievement in six areas: teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and leadership and institutional culture.
For Dr. Whirl, the mission and vision is straight-forward. “We want to transform lives and organizations through excellence.”
With more than 138 programs of study, adult education, GED and more, Augusta Tech is equipping students with the skills needed to enter the workforce immediately. Ninety-four percent of Augusta Tech’s students are local and 96% stay local once when they graduate, making a $320 million economic impact in this region, according to a recent study.
With a focus on innovation and partnerships, Dr. Whirl is determined to propel Augusta Technical College to the next level.
“We want to be nationally recognized. Period,” Dr. Whirl said emphatically. “I did not come here to be the best in the region or the state. We are going right to the top.”
Appears in the November/December 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.