Daniel Island Resident Glenn Duncan Elected Officer of Area League of Women Voters
Bless Miss Clay.
Echoes of this North Carolina teacher’s artistry still resonate in a house on Daniel Island. Thanks, in part, to a grapefruit spoon and dancing the minuet.
A half century ago, Clay infused Glenn and Sherrill Duncan with a lifelong passion for education when they were elementary students in Roxboro, N.C.
“Our school was so small that Miss Clay had around 30 5th- and 6th-graders in a combined class and she seemed to teach in a different dimension,” Glenn Duncan recalled, “When you were in her class, you felt you became more of a whole person.”
The Duncans remember fun and creative activities such as gardening, which helped them learn how to measure their plots, plays and visits to her house.
“When we studied colonial history, we learned how to do the minuet,” Glenn said. “The boys made white wigs out of cotton balls and we fashioned buckles for our shoes. She would also take us to her home and taught us country bumpkins how to set a table. It was the first time I ever saw a grapefruit spoon.”
Sherrill Duncan said the memory of Clay’s magical classroom – along with the family role models of her teacher grandmother and cousin – spurred her to a career in education. And Glenn, who retired from Dupont in 1999, has been an educational activist all of his life.
The LWV is part of an education coalition that consists of the Chamber of Commerce, Charleston Education Network, Parent-Teachers Association (PTA), Communities in Schools and other groups.
“We have to move ahead together or we don’t move ahead at all,” Glenn said. “To solve the problems in education, we need compromise and a broad spectrum of participation to move forward. There has been no good reconciliation right now, just compromises of equal loss.”
LWV President Barbara Zia is grateful for Glenn’s work in education. “In the five or so years we have known one another, Glenn has worked tirelessly to improve public education for all South Carolina’s children. As a board member for the Charleston Area League of Women over the past 3 years Glenn has provided our organization with leadership on education as we tackle tough issues such as reforming the governance structure of the Charleston County School District, achieving equitable and adequate funding for South Carolina schools, and opposing tuition tax credits for private schooling,” Zia said.
“Whether advocating one-on-one with a state legislator or as a member of a League committee, what Glenn brings to the table is his indefatigable passion and energy, superb organizational skills, respect for others and their views, and the ability to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to work cooperatively toward a common goal. Glenn is a hard man to say no to, as many an elected official knows,” Zia continued.
The LWV is conducting an education-finance study. Current school funding through property taxes is a problem, because areas without a strong property-tax base suffer, according to the Duncans.
“I have people tell me, ‘I don’t have kids in school. Why should I have to pay for their education?’” Glenn said. “And I say, ‘Well, the product of the next generation might be robbing your home.’”
Sherrill taught 3rd grade in North Charleston schools in recent years and has dozens of stories about life in a struggling school system.
“During my first year at Hursey [Elementary] I taught in an old, decrepit trailer that was leaky and overcrowded,” she said. “The walls were literally falling down. Glenn and I went in on a weekend to paint and wash the windows.”
There was also a woeful shortage of basic materials, Sherrill said. Consequently, she spent an average of $100 monthly out of her own pocket for crayons, storage boxes, books, scissors, glue sticks and other items for her students.
“No one can imagine what it was like starting a day in North Charleston,” Sherrill said. “You’d have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] kids coming in who hadn’t taken their medications and you’d have to get them to take their pills. And until they calmed down, you couldn’t get anything else done. Oftentimes I wasn’t able to start real teaching until 10.”
She said most of her students had never seen the ocean or knew what a marsh is.
“Someone told me when I started that I was in for a cultural shock,” Sherrill recalled. “I was. I’d taught in integrated schools all of my life but had never seen anything like North Charleston.”
One problem is lack of diversity, the Duncans said. For example, Hursey Elementary is 96-percent black.
“Our kids always went to integrated schools. If I had my way, I’d diversify all the schools,” said Glenn, a former engineer who now works as an organizational systems consultant. “That’s where the strength lies. There’s nothing worse than a stiff, hierarchal organization because it’s so hard to enact change. Within a system where there are perceived inequalities, there has to be a personal mechanism for experimentation. I got that from my background as an engineer.”
Sherrill particularly recalls one ADHD student who touched her heart. Abandoned by his parents, his four older brothers were in prison. The Duncans took him under their wing.
“Glenn used to help him with math,” she said. “This little boy just had so much stacked against him. One weekend he broke into my trailer to play on the computer and because he knew I had candy and pens. I think he did it because he just felt safe there.”
While the Duncans applaud recent school-building programs in North Charleston, they say that a big impediment continues to be Constituent Boards, part of a dual-board structure of Charleston County Schools. These were established in 1967 and are made up of elected members who hear discipline and transfer cases, draw attendance lines and have a say in hiring and firing within their respective districts. There is no similar system elsewhere in the U.S.
Consequently, there are no clear lines of authority and Constituent Board micro-management hamstrings reform efforts, Glenn said. The education coalition has said that the superintendent should be given authority over personnel assignments, which would likely lead to more accountability and improved student achievement.
Ultimately, community involvement is crucial to educational success, according to Glenn.
“If you’re organized, there is a natural energy field that will yield results,” he said.
One such community was Kinston, N.C., where the Duncans used to live.
“Parent participation in PTA in Kinston was 100 percent,” he said. “If you had a child in school, it was assumed that you would be in PTA. The membership had so much money that they didn’t know what to do with it. Those people had expectations and it created an energy field that allowed the schools to flourish and grow. It’s not a materialistic phenomenon.
“The key is to get the community organized with the intent to educate. We must remember that education is the whole foundation of this country and its people. The rock it sits on is education.”