“I finally found my passion,” Adrienne Johnson says. “I don’t see this as a job. It’s a calling.”

Johnson is the behavior specialist at the STAR Center for Learning in Cope, where she serves middle school students from Orangeburg Consolidated School District 4 and Bamberg Districts 1 and 2.

Johnson was recently honored as Staff Person of the Year by OCSD4.

She has made a difference in many lives, but there’s one she remembers above all others.

A young man was sent to the STAR Center who’d been threatened with expulsion in his regular school, she said. He was homeless. His father was deceased; his mother battled substance abuse, and he needed the opportunity to vent.

He needed someone to work with one-on-one, and she gave him that special attention, Johnson said.

“He and I just clicked,” she said. “We established a relationship, and he continued to go to school.”

She found him places to stay in shelters and eventually found him a more permanent place at a halfway house in Greenwood.

“But he wouldn’t stay because it would have taken him out of the district,” Johnson said.

Eventually, he found a home with friends in Denmark, and they brought him to school, she said.

“His grades improved. He started feeling he could be successful, and he graduated from high school and OCtech,” Johnson said. “Today, he has his own family.”

The hardest thing about her job is that people think the kids are just difficult, she said.

They think, “The STAR Center? Oh, that’s the place the bad children go,” Johnson said.

“That’s just not so,” she said.

There are times when their situation in life makes them get discouraged, she said. Circumstances have not presented them with the opportunities they need, and they just need a second chance. They are the ones who need just a little more encouragement – just a little more push.

“A lot of people give up on them and often they give up on themselves,” Johnson said. “But with the right tools and placing the right person in their lives, they can overcome.”

If these children get the right gift, the right tools and the right people in their lives, they can succeed, she said.

Actually, the STAR Center offers three programs: Middle School Matters, Jump Start to High School and disciplinary action, Johnson said.

Middle School Matters is for sixth and seventh graders who are overage for their grade levels, she said. It supplies intensive academic interventions and requires them to attend summer school. The principal can recommend they enter the program or they can request it themselves.

Jump Start for High School targets eighth graders who are overage for their grade level, Johnson said. They are placed at the STAR Center by their principal or request it themselves. They attend the school for the entire year and get the chance to jump-start their education. They actually are attempting to do two years in one.

Under disciplinary placement, students are sent to the STAR Center for a semester in lieu of expulsion. They’re placed there by Assistant Superintendent Larry Wolfe or the Discipline Panel. The purpose is to teach them to modify behavior, to control anger, etc.

Johnson’s job is to work with parents as well as students, to be part of their lives, she said.

She does individual and group counseling and uses behavior modification techniques to help the students learn to behave. She teaches parenting skills and makes home visits.

The idea is to be a part of the community and let them know she’s available to help, Johnson said.

Johnson was selected by her peers to represent them as Staff Person of the Year at the STAR Center. She was then chosen as one of three finalists at the district level. She appeared before a panel of educators at the STAR Center, where she was chosen to represent the district of Staff Person of the Year.

Johnson’s mother lived in New York, and she was reared by her grandmother. When she graduated from high school, she wasn’t particularly interested in attending college, she said.

But at the urging of her mother and her grandmother, who actually filled out the application for her, Johnson attended South Carolina State University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in counseling education and psychology. She went on to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation.

Her first job after graduation was at Orangeburg County Mental Health. She spent 16 years there before applying at the STAR Center, where she immediately “clicked,” she said.

“I found purpose here,” Johnson said. “I don’t see this as a job. It’s a win-win situation. It’s a calling.”

Contact the writer: dlinderaltman@gmail.com.

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