James Harrison Goodwin, superintendent of Chesterfield County Schools, was recently named the 2019 South Carolina Superintendent of the Year by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators. Goodwin, a two-time alum of Clemson University, has held this position for the past seven years.
Goodwin recently shared information with us on what makes a superintendent tick, how he’s managed to become “one of the oldest” around and what challenges come along with running a largely rural district. Goodwin also weighs in on the current challenges in South Carolina’s education landscape, and what he thinks of the students he has the pleasure of serving every day.
What was your reaction to being named SC Superintendent of the Year?
First off, I have to say I’m not much on individual awards. We’re fortunate in this district to have great teachers and staff along with a great group of kids in a district that has traditionally struggled. I see this as recognition of what they’ve all done.
What do you mean by struggle?
We’re the sixth largest county geography wise, and we’re very rural. That’s over 7,000 students spread across a large land mass where the poverty index is above 75 percent. All the things that would be against school performance work against us.
Our strategy is to take away barriers of poverty so that they don’t get in the way of kids’ learning. We’ve brought mental health counselors and other services to schools. We’ve partnered with other organizations to bring dental and medical help to schools. We’re one of first districts to implement breakfast and lunch at no charge. All the things kids have to worry about when they come to school, we take those factors away as much as we can. Once that’s done we put good teachers in front of kids and give those kids the opportunity to learn.
What’s the most challenging aspect of in your role as superintendent?
State funding has been the biggest challenge for us. You have to find ways to overcome the balancing act between providing services and figuring out a budget. We were fortunate to be able to refinance a lot of debt that the district had, which freed up capital at lower interest rates than those that were locked in during the early 2000s. Freeing up that money and getting grant money for a technology refresh was a big deal for us and we were lucky that these things hit at the right time. We had to make our own opportunities, and we have good people that work at doing those things.
Is there a secret to success for superintendents? What are the pitfalls?
The average tenure for a superintendent is less than five years, so I’m quickly becoming one of the older ones around (laughs). I think that the main thing you have to do is remember what you got into it for, which should be to affect kids in a positive way. If you don’t forget that part of it and stay true to who you are, that’s the key to being successful.
What do you think you see as a hurdle for schools and districts on the horizon?
I think there is one major thing that has to be addressed, and that is the perception of public education. For some reason, public education has now been associated with low quality. There are 800 kids in one of our high schools, the student ranked ninth in their class out of 125 kids went to Harvard this year. Many more are going to four-year universities. Public education is producing competitive students while headlines all talk about bad kids; I firmly believe that kids are better today than they were 25 years ago. How many kids would have spent time building Habitat for Humanity houses during homecoming 25 years ago?
(Pauses) I’m sorry; I can get on my soapbox pretty quickly. Some of my peers give me a hard time. It’s just that for every one kid that might make a bad decision, I can put 10 up that do the right thing day in and day out. It frustrates me greatly; I got into education to help kids, not to complain about them.
Did you always have a desire to get into education to help kids?
My father was a high school principal, and I said there’s no way I’m going to do that. One thing led to another and I became what’s commonly referred to as a shop teacher before I moved to the industrial technology and computer science side of things. I really liked having a set of skills and teaching others how to use them.
I then became assistant principal of Ninety-Six High School and later principal of Chapman High School. Then I became assistant superintendent of administration and operations for Spartanburg District One. I’ve basically wandered from one thing to another. As for moving into administration; well, the politics of education can turn people off. Districts are like big businesses, and you have to get over dealing with that and learn to navigate it and still do what’s right for kids.
I still get into the classrooms, though. I still love it because there’s nothing more exciting than working with kids. I call what I do “disrupting class.” I visit and spend time with kids, and I love to be in schools during class change because to me that’s where you find a school’s energy.
How did both degrees you earned at Clemson prepare you for work in the field?
I had the best academic experiences through both my bachelor’s in industrial education and my master’s in administration and supervision, even though there was a fair gap between the two. During my undergraduate studies, Clemson always felt like a small place to me. Faculty took a personal interest in us. You could go and sit down and talk to any of your major professors.
When I came back for master’s program, there was a cohort of 20 or so people, and the folks that worked with us took that same personal interest as far as what we would do beyond finishing the degree. I think that’s a key, and the kids I know today that end up going to Clemson always report that faculty there still look after students. They still try to make it feel as small as possible despite the obvious growth of the university.
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