- Orangeburg County School District
Superintendent's Year One Success
Orangeburg County School District’s Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster detailed progress over the last year during the Board of Trustee’s regularly scheduled meeting on June 8, 2021. The update is part of the superintendent’s annual evaluation, which will be conducted during a Special Called Meeting on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Foster’s presentation delivered, as promised, on his year-one goals as superintendent.
The goals were first presented in June 2020 as part of an Entry Plan he shared with the School Board and community during their search for the newly-consolidated District’s superintendent. Foster updated the Board and community midway through the year, in January 2021. His original Entry Plan, the update in January 2021, and the latest, a 35-page Year-One Update, all appear on the District’s website and represent the educational leader’s communications style, which he sums it up quite simply. “You tell people what you are going to do, give them an update on where you are and then you tell them when it is done.”
While the District’s leader would say the work is just beginning, he also beams with pride discussing the last trip around the sun and how together Orangeburg is navigating a new day for its school system amidst unprecedented changes to public education.
GOAL NUMBER ONE
“Trust is the foundation of relationships and organizational progress,” Foster commented.
Establishing a relationship of trust and collaboration with the school board, cabinet members, administrative departments and community stakeholders is goal number one.
Foster helped ensure a shared vision for his entry into the school system by presenting his Entry Plan to internal and external stakeholders, engaging in one-on-one meetings with department heads and helping departmental and school leaders formulate their own professional goals.
Under Foster’s leadership, roles, responsibilities, and expectations are being defined for staff members and employees are participating in a compensation and staffing study aimed to ensure competitive salaries and that job descriptions match responsibilities. A “Let Us Help” Tab appears on the District’s website, providing stakeholders with direction in mitigating any issues or concerns, while demonstrating a commitment to customer service.
In an effort to establish departments as a cohesive team, he’s established regular meeting times with department heads and principals. Foster meets every Monday with Assistant Superintendents during Senior Staff, and monthly with the Superintendent’s Cabinet he established. Principals Meetings are also held monthly; each begins with an “Empowerment Session” where Professional Learning through texts, analysis and intensive discussions are deepening relationships and enhancing collaboration.
Internal and external meetings, far too numerous to list, have allowed the superintendent to establish presence in the community. He solicits input regularly through surveys and in-person focus group meetings and has embarked upon a planning exercise to chart a path forward, in collaboration with stakeholders, for the next five years.
He meets regularly with Teachers of the Year and Support Staff of the Year and has assisted those leaders in establishing forums for thought-sharing and support. He joined NIET in surprising Mellichamp Elementary, our very own School of Promise (one of just two in the nation), and business leaders in conference calls arranged through Economic Development. Foster has developed symbiotic partnerships with post-secondary presidents who have collaborated on increased opportunities for students, such as the Orangeburg Advanced College. He’s welcomed new leaders to schools and arranged for more than a handful of Food Distribution events, in partnership with Save the Children through a grant.
GOAL NUMBER TWO
Fiscal and operational responsibility are priority for Orangeburg’s superintendent. As such, Foster’s second goal was to learn systems and structures for fiscal and organizational accountability.
In an effort to ensure a collaborative budget process, stakeholder input and a budget calendar were developed. As part of his review and meetings with financial advisors, an error in communicating the value of a mill was discovered that caused the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) budget to be built on revenues that would never be realized by the school district. While the $8.6 million dollar shortfall weighed heavy on the district’s new leader throughout the year, in April of 2021, senate and house members successfully passed S515, resetting the operational millage to match the rate of the three districts consolidated as well as the intent of the original district consolidation bill.
“We had to charter through some bumpy waters,” Foster acknowledges. “The deficit was an obstacle. However, we built relationships through those challenges; S515 was a tremendous win for our team.”
The team had spent countless hours eliminating expenses, and developing a strategy with the legislature for a millage reset. Foster recalls the day in April 2021 when the bill was signed.
“I was overcome with gratitude to our senate and house members and will be forever grateful for the time they spent with us to listen and understand the shortfall,” he says. “Their action will ensure the future financial stability of our community’s public school district.”
Foster says he’s also grateful for the lesson the deficit helped solidify for district and school leaders.
“I’ve challenged each of us to ‘Lead through the crisis, not just manage the response,’” Foster details. “The relationships built as we lead through this crisis are solid and have put us on very good footing to work together in a spirit of trust and respect going forward. Progress is made at the speed of trust; the budget shortfall expedited that and I’m grateful.”
In partnership with the Office of Small and Minority Business Contracting and Certification,
a Vendor Information Meeting was held in late October in an effort to support the local economy and demonstrate a spirit of collaboration with local businesses.
Foster reviewed plans and current operations with a focus on continuous improvement, particularly in the areas of facilities, maintenance, transportation, and technology. As a result, the District has improved connectivity through partnerships with Google and Aiken Electric; reduced rates for technology services; procured a phone system that will extend service throughout the county; painted activity buses; installed radio communications; streamlined grounds maintenance; and completed various facility improvements, including flooring at four schools, roofs at three, parking lots at seven, field house renovations at one, and new paint at another.
The District was recently awarded the largest USDA grant in the state’s history, which will allow OCSD to address additional capital needs that are being prioritized through a comprehensive demographic and facilities study currently underway.
“To be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and make the best possible use of resources, we have to look at future enrollment trends, facility use and capacity, as well as the state of our schools,” he explained.
In reviewing the school system’s communications activities and structure in summer 2020, it was apparent that few resources had been allocated in that critical area. By examining the use of existing human and financial resources and aligning existing roles and budgets to strategic initiatives, significant progress has been made in marketing, community engagement, as well as internal and external communications, including the much-anticipated launch of a new District and school websites; the SMART Virtual Health Collaborative, which put virtual medical visits in the hands of every student and family; the District’s first-ever virtual Educator Recruitment Event, yielding nearly 70 interested attendees from across the nation through an online advertising effort and the hiring of more than 20 new teachers for our public schools. Coordination among departments, collaboration, and coordinated messaging has been enhanced through the Communications Office. According to Foster, the most impactful contribution the Communications, Business and Community Partnerships Office has made to-date is the solicited donation from the NAACP for flags at each school and location, which serve to unify schools and offices throughout the county.
“I remember that morning,” Foster smiles thinking about December 10, 2020, when all schools and offices simultaneously raised their OCSD flags and safely celebrated being “one” together, no matter how distant. “We made a conscious effort to say that we will be a symbol of unity; one school district, with the same values and the same care for all students in our county.”
In collaboration with its leaders, Foster also restructured the Department of Student Services, providing additional social and emotional supports for employees, families, and students alike. The District joined Public Safety in hosting a Gang Prevention Summit and partnered with others to host a Male Speaker Series, addressing such topics as goals, good habits and character. Student Services also created a library of inspirational videos to support mental health and wellness of students and staff. Additionally, OCSD has established a Clothes Closet to support students with hardships that result in the need for proper academic attire.
As the District has extended a collective hand in support to those in the community, in return it’s been richly blessed this year as well. Claflin University’s sports teams donated nearly 11,000 food items to help with the Filling Station’s mission, the Tiffany Grant Foundation donated school supplies, Alpha XI Chapter of Delta Signa Theta, Inc. provided after school tutoring and support to students, and the 2021 Class of Leadership SC chose Howard Middle School for their service project and are raising funds statewide to paint the school and establish a clothes closet.
GOAL NUMBER THREE
With a goal to establish a positive culture and climate between the central office, schools, and community, despite COVID-19 challenges, the superintendent has made considerable progress in that regard.
A virtual convocation event was held in August of 2020 to celebrate the start of the school year with all employees in attendance. Foster upheld his commitment to attend a faculty meeting at each school, and intently listened and learned from teachers and other staff members as they discussed challenges and triumphs, as well as goals and dreams for our community’s children and our public schools. He also attended sports and community events, and met with a diverse myriad of community leaders.
“Through Concerned Citizens Conference Calls; visits with members of our legislative delegation; Education Foundation representatives; religious, law, enforcement, government, economic development, and civic club leaders, I have developed a much deeper appreciation for our school system’s history and a clear vision for where we need to go.”
Systems for showcasing school, staff and student successes were created, including Board Recognition Criteria, to celebrate excellence and tell the story of Orangeburg County School District through media engagement, social media and district-wide celebrations.
GOAL NUMBER FOUR
While all goals are important, to ensure the safety and security of students and staff, is paramount.
“Safety is and must be our greatest priority,” Foster explains.
In collaboration with School Resource Officers and Law Enforcement, school and district leaders have engaged in a comprehensive review of safety procedures, including examining and editing the Emergency Guide, and redefining protocols for arrival/dismissal and other times of potential vulnerability. In concert with local law enforcement, trainings are being held for school-level leaders and the District Safety Team to ensure optimum preparation in the event of an emergency.
“Just today we had a staff training with local law enforcement and SLED,” Dr. Foster mentioned to the board as part of his update.
In addition, protocols for reporting safety concerns and bullying have also been reviewed. Bullying in schools makes for one of the most challenging experiences for young persons. The new Student Code of Conduct clearly defines bullying and provides guidance to administrators in distinguishing between bullying and other behaviors.
GOAL NUMBER FIVE
“We’re not just playing school,” Foster jokes.
Fittingly, his fifth and final goal outlined and planned for a successful transition to serve as Orangeburg’s superintendent was to evaluate the current instructional program to ensure that all students are provided the opportunity to maximize their academic potential.
“Data-driven discussions help ensure all students perform at or above grade level, that students receive appropriate, targeted interventions, and that we accelerate gifted learners,” he continued.
In addition to regular discussions with the Assistant Superintendent over Curriculum and Instruction, Foster has committed to regular meetings with instructional staff to discuss the instructional model, current needs, goals, programs and review data. This year, a thorough Transcript Review audit was conducted, course offerings have been organized in a High School Course Catalog, and the goal to provide students the opportunity for authentic, hands-on experiences will soon be realized.
“It’s important that our students graduate with a diploma and a set of employable skills,” Foster stated. “OCSD is leading the way in providing those experiences and will begin with student apprentices in our Departments of Operations, Finance, Technology and Communications.
As part of the District’s commitment to continuous improvement and resource responsibility, a review of the Instructional Department’s organizational structure, full time employee numbers, and student/teacher ratios were reviewed to ensure balance across the District, as well as consistency in offerings.
“We shifted 70+ individuals to provide the highest quality of instructional service to our schools,” he says. “We could not ensure that if you were in a classroom in the east that you had access to the same resources as in the west and that’s not acceptable. We’ve since added new cleartouch boards in every classroom, ensured new and updated devices for all students, as well as unified the types of devices for each grade level.”
Dr. Foster summed up his Year One Update with a headline printed in the June 15, 2020 edition of the Times & Democrat. The article was one of many written by Gene Zaleski and covered a community meeting in which then-superintendent candidate Dr. Shawn Foster presented.
“June 15, 2020, almost a year to the date,” he pointed out. “I shared the same sentiments that are covered in that article that I updated you on tonight. I cannot take individual credit for the progress of the last year. This year’s successes are due to a collective effort from the leadership team, students, teachers, everyone who stood shoulder to shoulder with me and accepted the challenge to be agile, to put student needs first and always in the forefront of everything we do.”
He closed by thanking the School Board also for their commitment to students and the health of the community, and for holding him accountable for that also.
“Thank you for the opportunity to serve in what is the best school district in the state and maybe even in the southeast,” he proclaimed. “I look forward to many more accomplishments.”