Class is in session
The beginning of 2017 was a tumultuous time for Berkeley County. Berkeley County School District Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas was fired in February in the wake of an FBI investigation into embezzlement claims. After his termination, Thomas admitted to stealing $400,000 from district coffers, a figure that has steadily climbed as the financial fallout from his actions continues to unravel. The previous superintendent, Brenda Blackburn, resigned a month after Thomas.
Eddie Ingram was hired by the Berkeley County School Board in August of 2017 to lead BCSD as their superintendent. In the shadow of that turbulent year, and with explosive growth affecting areas like Daniel Island and the Cainhoy Peninsula, Ingram is promoting a message of moving past older traditions for the betterment of the school district. This, and many other topics, are on the agenda for Ingram in the coming months, as he explained in a July 26 “back to school” press conference at Berkeley Middle School.
HIRING NEW EDUCATORS
South Carolina’s teacher shortage, and the influx of education jobs it’s left unfilled in Berkeley County, is a topic that seems more pressing as the school year rapidly approaches.
“It’s certainly a struggle to get very good teachers,” said Ingram. “There’s more vacancies than there are people.”
In early July, there were approximately 90 BCSD positions open. The Superintendent updated the number of available positions last week as closer to 60.
“We have vacancies in areas that one would not expect vacancies: music, art, physical education, particularly at the middle school level,” he said.
According to Ingram, the plan is to fill every position with a highly qualified teacher. In the meantime, he continued, BCSD has had to get creative.
“We will rely on retired workforce that still have a lot to contribute and they want to come back for short terms. Sometimes they fill them longer than we would like, or they would like, but because of their unwavering commitment, that’s what we’ll do. We have done things like combining classes, where the numbers are reasonable.”
The long term solution? A culture in the school district that supports the teacher, noted Ingram.
“If we treat our employees really well, it’s not so much the recruiting piece, it’s keeping the good ones that you have,” he said. “We’ve got to stop taking a hammer and beating up the teaching profession…I think there’s a correlation between the numbers of people that are entering the profession. It’s dwindling.”
Ingram added that working conditions are a bigger issue than money for teachers, saying that “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses. So, we have to treat our people well.”
Ingram provided a hopeful outlook on bullying in the school system.
“Kids are more aware than in my generation,” he said. “We have more evidence that they are concerned [about bullying] and we’ve done a better job at teaching kids not to [bully].”
This echoes statistical evidence from stopbullying.gov, a government website that studies and attempts to prevent bullying.
“There is growing awareness of the problem of bullying, which may lead some to believe that bullying is increasing,” states the website. “However, studies suggest that rates of bullying may be declining.”
During a 2017 tour of all BCSD schools, Ingram asked students at each facility several questions, one of which was about bullying.
“Does bullying go on? Absolutely,” he said. “But, because we’re more socially aware of it, I think we don’t give our kids enough credit. The generation we have now is better, in my opinion, at not tolerating it. They speak out.”
Ingram added that BCSD schools try to combat bullying with methods specific to each facility.
“We do have lots of things in place, some more formal programs, some less, but schools have to do best what works best in their culture,” he said. “We have anonymous reporting tools, with technology. We investigate them. When we find the veracity in them, we deal with them, case-by-case basis.”
SUMMER LUNCH AND BREAKFAST PROGRAMS
BCSD’s summer lunch program, in which students from certain schools who are under the age of 18 may receive free hot meals for breakfast and lunch, is a topic that Ingram is passionate about.
“Impoverished kids do not stop being hungry in the summer time,” said Ingram. “Of the basic needs of any human being is food. It is a decent, right thing to do. We actually receive more subsidy for a lunch that’s subsidized as opposed to one that’s actually paid for, so it is not a financial burden to have a summer lunch program and breakfast program.”
The district’s participation in the program predates Ingram’s employment, but it’s one he believes in firmly.
“The U.S. of America fed Charles Manson in federal prison for over 40 years before he recently died, a mass murderer. So, when someone asks me about wasting tax dollars to feed people, with all due respect, I’m almost insulted.”
GOALS FOR THE SCHOOL YEAR
Ingram believes that the goals for the upcoming school year need to remain wide.
“It’s easy to sit down and say ‘we’ll improve test scores by three percent, five percent.’ That’s quite frankly pretty myopic,” he said. “Goals need to be broader, generalized, and we’ll be developing a community consensus about what’s important, what skills need to be taught to our kids.”
Ingram wants to focus on the county’s values.
“I don’t think your core values really change, but I do believe that some of the more basic things have to be identified,” he said.
The superintendent said that one answer to this problem is to rethink the way school is organized.
“We have to build these goals collaboratively with lots of interaction, and it’s an intentional, deliberate process, but lots of organizations skip the process.”
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS
The superintendent confirmed that the district is looking into hiring more school resource officers, but money is an issue.
“I do believe that a uniformed officer in a school carries a strong presence,” he said. “Sheriff [Duane] Lewis and I have a great relationship. We’ve discussed these items. There also has to be the budget for it.”
“I’m certainly in favor of an SRO in every school,” Ingram added. “There’s a cost associated with that, and there’s also training costs. If we have a teaching shortage, we also have a law enforcement shortage.”
Training for school shootings is something that BCSD has participated in before. Both Sheriff Lewis and Ingram have talked about drills that teachers have run in case of an intruder.
Berkeley County does not have a resource officer in every school, but Ingram said that they place them strategically and think about the proximity of schools to other BCSD education facilities.
“We do have some measures that we are working on and some initiatives to keep people safe,” he said.
GROWTH ON DANIEL ISLAND/CAINHOY PENINSULA
Like many things in schools, BCSD’s plan for the constant growth of the Daniel Island and Cainhoy areas is a work in progress.
“We just had a facility study that approved by the Board of Education,” said Ingram. “It’s technology driven, so we’ll be able to update it quarterly and monitor the growth.”
The superintendent said that, because building schools is a laborious development, one method the county will resort to, for the time being, is mobile classrooms. He said that this option is not their first choice.
“We’re growing 800 kids a year, which is basically a school a year,” said Ingram. “That presents its own challenges, but when you decide where to place a school, it has to be done through professional and technical studies.”
Ingram included that, thanks to the recent development of Philip Simmons High School, the Daniel Island and Cainhoy areas have a student population buffer for the near future.
“We’re growing rapidly,” said Ingram. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. I’d rather be growing than shrinking.”