New Chester schools chief ready for challenge

Slayman: Reading is paramount for Chester students

scetrone@heraldonline.comDecember 22, 2011 

— Chester County schools will start the new year with a new leader.

Agnes Slayman, 52, Kershaw County school district's director of secondary education, will take charge.

The school board last month offered Slayman the superintendent's job under a three-and-a-half-year contract at an annual salary of $140,000.

She will face an array of challenges leading the rural district where roughly 70 percent of the 6,000 students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Chief among them is lagging student achievement. While there have been bright spots, such as Lewisville High's "excellent" rating on state report cards, a large share of students have scored below proficient on standardized tests.

Slayman has spent 20 years in Kershaw County schools, where she has been an assistant principal, a principal and an assistant superintendent. She spoke with The Herald via e-mail about her plans for Chester County schools:

What attracts you to the Chester County School District?

My husband and I drove all over Chester County before I applied for the job as superintendent. We stopped in restaurants, stores or at gas stations and asked questions about the county and school district. We found that Chester County and the school district have a strong history, the people have pride in their schools, and we were told the employees are dedicated to the school system.

The Chester County communities were warm and caring. Rob and I determined the county was a good fit for us, and I felt Chester County School District was a place I could come to and stay for the long haul.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Just as the situations that present themselves in a school district will vary, so does my leadership style. My preference, however, is to operate in a collaborative environment.

I strongly believe that the best plans for improving student achievement and sustaining growth in Chester County School District will be more attainable when all stakeholders (employees, students, parents and community) feel ownership and actively participate in improvement efforts.

As superintendent, you'll face challenges, particularly in the realm of student achievement. For instance, according to state records, more than 43 percent of students in third through eighth grade failed the state science test; 40 percent failed the social studies test; 40 percent failed writing. How will you address this problem?

Reading on grade-level is the single most important predictor in student success in school and will be one of the areas, along with writing, that we will give renewed emphasis to this year. It is well known that children who read on grade level are able to comprehend the content that is presented not just in English and language arts but also in science, social studies and mathematics.

We do have some schools that are performing well in these areas, and we will want to share and replicate the best practices that have been shown to be effective. We are also going to examine our resources and determine if they are allocated in areas that will enable us to get the best bang for our buck in terms of positively impacting student achievement.

Are there any programs or initiatives you would like to start?

Initially we will put our efforts into improving the reading and writing skills of our students. Eventually, I would like to build upon the technology efforts that are already in place. I have had experience implementing a successful one-to-one (laptop) initiative and would like to take those experiences and grow what is already being done.

You've been in Kershaw County Schools since 1991. Why did you choose to leave?

My academic and career experiences were targeted toward the goal of becoming a superintendent. The Chester County school board members were impressive during the interviews and are genuine in their desire to make the school district one of the top districts in the state. The board of trustees are supportive of me and will be supportive of the efforts to continue growth. This makes being a superintendent here very attractive.

Do you see similarities between Kershaw County schools and Chester County schools?

Both have three distinct areas where area schools are located (Kershaw has West Wateree, City of Camden and North Central areas) (Chester has Lewisville, Great Falls and the City of Chester).

Both school systems have employees who grew up, went to school in their counties and then returned to work in the school systems. This is a huge strength for both school districts. Both counties have rich heritages and cultures that are supportive of public education.

You've been in education since 1983. What keeps you in the field?

I absolutely love connecting with students and working in education. It keeps me young! No two days are the same and flexibility is the name of the game.

I have been in this field long enough to have some of my high school students return from college and choose to teach. Some work in the private sector and some are in the military. We keep up with each other.

It is absolutely wonderful to have former students who are now parents become productive members of your community who return to and support their schools. This makes me proud!

What accomplishment in education are you proud of?

First, I am proud of the relationships I have developed with my students. Unexpectedly, I received an email from one of my former students who now teaches English in Lexington County and had just received his national board certification.

He emailed to thank me for how I had helped handle a particularly difficult situation for him and told me he realized I probably never knew what I did had any significance. He went on to tell me it influenced him as a teacher and that when he gave his students a writing assignment to thank someone who had positively impacted their lives that he thought of me and decided to write and thank me.

I remembered the incident, but I did not realize what I said and did had that great of an impact. It was just one of hundreds that I dealt with as an administrator. The email was very humbling. I kept it because it warmed my heart and shows the reward one gets from being an educator.

Second, I led the implementation of an over $8 million one-to-one laptop initiative that was cutting edge and positively impacted student achievement. The program was recognized with a Palmetto Pillar Award in South Carolina and is seen nationally as one of the most successful long-term technology initiatives.

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