Dr. Lucas “Luke” Clamp, principal of River Bluff High School in Lexington, South Carolina, was recently named the 2019 National Principal of the Year. Clamp earned the position as founding principal of River Bluff in 2011—when he was in his early 30s—and under his leadership the school has taken a decidedly unorthodox approach to education.
Clamp credits much of his success to the culture and leadership opportunities provided to him and his family by Clemson University. The Clamp family’s connection to Clemson runs deep. Clamp and his wife graduated from Clemson in 2002. Three of Clamp’s four brothers, including his twin brother Len, graduated from Clemson as well.
Many of those family members were present at the surprise pep rally that was held in River Bluff’s gym to celebrate Clamp’s recognition. We got the chance to discuss with Clamp what makes the high school special, why he feels it could serve as an example for all schools going forward, and what it felt like to celebrate his recognition with over 2,000 of his biggest fans.
Michael Staton: How did they possibly keep that pep rally a secret?
Lucas Clamp: They got me good (laughs). I can tell you with certainty that I was totally surprised, even though I knew I was one of three finalists. The best contributor was my wife. She is our school district’s teacher of the year, and the week of the pep rally, she looked at me with certainty and said, “Look, I’m just telling you: you didn’t get it. You need to move on.” I suspect she knew when she told me that.
MS: When did you know?
LC: I didn’t know until got to gym lobby and grabbed the door. I saw dignitaries there and cameras and stuff. When I opened the door, the students started chanting “All Hail Clamp” and it was overwhelming. My twin brother met me on the floor, and if I didn’t hold onto him I might have passed out. It’s now been a little over a week and it’s still really celebratory around here; I just hope that attitude continues. Our theme this year is “breakthrough,” and it’s been an incredible, breakthrough year for all of us.
MS: Why do you think you were selected?
LC: My name may be on a trophy, but these awards don’t come to schools without collaboration, unity and culture. This recognition is a testament and tribute to the amazing work of students and our faculty. Founding our school and what we’ve done is unprecedented. Our student population has grown from 1,400 to 2,000, and our faculty has grown from 75 to over 200.
Our approach and our design began with the idea that students could be leaders of their own learning. Time can be a valuable resource in learning, and we innovated by using time differently. There is unscheduled time and classes meet three to four days a week depending on the course to give students more independence. Students have Independent Learning Time with which to make decisions about their work, collaborate with others, and seek help from their teachers.
The school’s designs host four two story collaborative commons where teacher work stations are adjacent student work areas for accessibility and collaboration. Our teachers design learning so that they are facilitators and the student is the leader; character is emphasized along the way. It feels more like a collegiate experience.
The school was figurately and literally built for students. We partnered with an outstanding educational design company, EL Education, and we didn’t give the architects specifications, we gave them criteria for students. We build effective learners, ethical people and those that want to contribute to better world. That’s a piece of our history that I feel is a tremendous legacy for learning.
MS: Was your plan for River Bluff a hard sell to the community at first?
LC: We had some worried community members, but what we did early was present our belief about the experience to the community. We’re a public school so they have to come, but I wanted to build capacity for people to discuss and talk about an environment that was different from what parents knew. People want to be a part of what we’re doing. We’ve hosted over 70 schools who come to learn from us. We’ve graduated amazing groups of seniors because we continued to stay true to our mission to think in new direction.
People probably said “we’ve already got candles” to Thomas Edison. He didn’t design a light bulb because people needed better light; he did it because they needed more sustainable light. Learning needs to be different. We don’t need to replicate the factory model for an economy that was factory based. We need to help them fit into a creative economy where they will face problems that are not yet defined and and create things they don’t even know we need yet.
MS: What inspired you to pursue education in the first place?
LC: My mother was an incredible example to me. She was an elementary teacher, principal and superintendent. I saw her actions and heard about her impact around the kitchen table. I couldn’t help but consider the field for myself. It is a calling; I knew at 17 that it’s where I wanted to spend my career. I majored in science teaching, chemistry and physics. I was a chemistry teacher out of college. Then I moved to Columbia to teach at Irmo High School where I also coached football and baseball. I’ve stayed in the Midlands ever since.
After my first year teaching I began my master’s program at USC and then took my first administrative position at Irmo as dean of students, which laid the groundwork for my position as assistant principal at Lexington High School in 2006. I was chosen as founding principal at River Bluff in 2011.
MS: How do you think you sold yourself as the right choice for River Bluff?
LC: I was honored to be even be considered. It was a nationwide search to build and lead a new school. I think what likely hit the selection committee was an attitude of courage and commitment about students. I told them that I can connect to people regardless of circumstance and that I am not afraid to research and try something new. To be committed to the journey.
I was and am a relational leader; I care about people. I think those qualities exemplified what they were looking for. I was also very fortunate to select and identify every person that has worked with our school. I took each one of those opportunities with a high level of responsibility, and I got to see different people and cultures connect.
MS: What’s the most challenging aspect of your role as principal?
LC: It is my responsibility every day to create conditions for success, so I would say it’s creating those conditions for people and advocating on behalf of resources, hiring practices and school safety. Our school has almost doubled in five years, so we have had to bring on a large number of faculty. It can be challenging work to coach, support and guide teachers to a high level of consistency.
MS: What’s the next big project or goal for you on the horizon?
LC: Our tagline is “the best is yet to come.” I’m 38 years old. My career is still ahead of me. I’m honored to be at a place with this national platform to pay tribute to the field and also be an advocate. Our school was selected as a semi-finalist for the Palmetto’s Finest award. Through our partnership with EL Education, we can also get a credential for consistency. I believe this is just the beginning for River Bluff and that we will continue to see students thrive at high levels.
MS: You’re really high energy; it comes through over the phone. How do you maintain that?
LC: The media has asked me that question a lot (laughs). I’ll be honest: I crash at about 9 p.m. every night. I’m a man of faith; that passion you hear, it’s because my work is for heavenly acknowledgement. It’s not for man, it’s for God. I’m conscious of my role as principal, but I’m aware that the way I behave in general has the potential to inspire others. I don’t do that for earthly gain.
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