On Monday morning, Kelly Pew will move into her new office in the Rock Hill School District and begin her new job as district superintendent.
What’s the best word to describe her feelings? “Excitement,” she said.
“There are a lot of positive initiatives that are going on to support kids to help them get prepared for life beyond school,” Pew said in an interview in April a week after signing her contract with Rock Hill.
Pew, the former superintendent in the Pickens County School District, was selected by the school board in early April after a seven-month search that started when Lynn Moody resigned to become superintendent in the Rowan/Salisbury school system in North Carolina.
Pew has made several trips to Rock Hill from Pickens County to sign her contract, look for a place to live and stop in at a few community events, including a school project at the Home Depot and the Come-See-Me Festival.
Interim superintendent John Taylor said he would encourage Pew to pay attention to the great relationships the school system has with several community groups. Taylor has been serving as interim superintendent since August.
“One of the things we have in Rock Hill that stands out is the relationships we have in the community,” Taylor said. “We have truly a progressive city.”
That’s one of the factors that drew Pew to Rock Hill, and why she’s happy she got the job.
“The commitment that the community has to public schools, you just feel that in Rock Hill,” Pew said.
Rock Hill schools have a wonderful reputation across the state, Pew said. While all communities have segments of the population supporting the school system, Rock Hill’s community-wide support seems unique.
In Pickens County, Pew started several projects that she plans to bring to Rock Hill. They include regular “State of the School” meetings with the public, advisory groups that include students and local business leaders, and in-depth partnerships with local colleges and universities.
“We need to make sure that students who desire to go to a four-year college have what they need but equally important, we need to make sure that those who don’t want to go to a four-year college are going to a two-year college or are going into the military or are going to work,” Pew said.
It’s important for businesses and colleges to be involved in the school system because they’re the ones who can tell the schools what skills high school graduates need. In Pickens, Pew has worked with a business education alliance and, more recently, a group called Manufacturers Caring for Pickens County.
These groups support and care about the school system and can foster programs like internships and tours for students to show them different career options. Pew wants to establish similar programs in Rock Hill.
In many ways, Pew is moving into the district at an unstable time for public education in South Carolina.
The South Carolina legislature is changing the way schools are funded, by weighting students based on their poverty level, but overall state funding increases will be minimal, if there are any at all. Still, the state is requiring school districts to increase the salaries for most school employees.
At the same time, teachers have no idea what standardized test their students will take during the 2014-15 school year because the state pulled out of the SmarterBalaced testing consortium in April because state superintendent of education Mick Zais said he wanted to freedom to pursue other options that would best align with the interests of South Carolina. SmarterBalanced was designed to test students on the Common Core State Standards.
Last week, the South Carolina Senate voted to implement new state standards by the 2015-2016 school year, effectively repealing Common Core within the next two years. In April Pew said the Common Core standards have been used as a “political football.”
Rock Hill schools also must decide if and how the iRock program, an initiative designed to increase students’ use computer technology, will move forward and expand.
“Implementing technology is absolutely critical to today’s student,” Pew said. “We would be doing a disservice to kids if we weren’t helping them know how to use technology.”
But, technology initiatives are expensive, not just for the devices and infrastructure to support them, but also in crucial professional development teachers need to successfully implement new technology, Pew said. As for the future of iRock, nothing is certain until it’s clear what funds are available, she said.
Before she can assess the district’s finances, Pew will work to to learn about the district on all levels, from the upper level administrators down the hall at the district office to the 17,000 students who walk the halls of Rock Hill schools each day. This will be more complicated by the busy nature of the last month of school, with finals, standardized testing, graduation and the budget process for next year getting underway.
“She has been a superintendent and she knows what this time of year is like,” Taylor said. “She’ll hit the ground running.”
During her first week, Pew said she’ll spend the first two days getting to know the upper level staff and learning about how the district operates. From Wednesday onward, she’s hoping to visit as many schools as possible before the year is over.
“That’s where I want to be, out there, meeting people, letting them see who I am,” Pew said.
Pew, who has been involved in South Carolina education her entire life, from growing up in the state to attending Clemson University to working in several school districts, said she hopes people will see her as a down-to-earth person who is devoted to public education.
“Education is more than a career,” she said. “It’s a life.”