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Foster ready to lead in time of uncertainty; new superintendent says, ‘Lack of access is lack of opportunity’

Orangeburg County School District Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster is settling into to his new office at the school district headquarters on Founders Court.

His name plate sits on the front of his desk, and next to it is an inspirational quote of the day.

A bookcase along the wall has one title prominently displayed: “Through the Cracks.”

The 43-year-old Foster says the book serves as a reminder of his role as leader of a district with approximately 12,300 students.

"It is all about the children, it is about equity," Foster said. "We have to provide equity for children.

"It doesn't matter where you live, how much money you have, how much money you don't have. You still deserve the same educational opportunities to function at your highest potential."

Foster was previously the chief officer for operations and student services with the Aiken County School District. Orangeburg County school trustees selected him from a field of 31 candidates, giving him a three-year contract.

He assumed his new role as superintendent on July 1.

As the district formulates a plan for educating children amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Foster says one of his biggest fears is that a student will be left behind.

But Foster believes that he, along with all the district’s stakeholders, will be able to meet the challenge.

It all begins with access, Foster said.

"We are having to consider broadband connectivity -- what are our resources to ensure every single child gets a high-quality educational experience?" he said. "That is all whether you live in the central part of this county or whether you live in the eastern or the western part."

Foster said the challenge is to see the needs of each area and to "marry" resources together to help students learn.

"It may look a little different," Foster said. "They (students) may have to get in the car and drive down the street. They may have to pair up. We have to give them the resources and the wherewithal to think outside the box."

"We need to ensure the circumstances they are in do not become a barrier to their access," he said. "There is not an achievement gap, there is an access gap. Lack of access is lack of opportunity."

District officials are still considering what school will look like when it resumes in about a month. Foster said they are looking at all the necessary data, having discussions with key district departments and monitoring COVID-19 locally and across the state. Centers for Disease Control guidelines and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are being consulted.

"There is a point where we will have to come up with a task force, and I use that word loosely, to look at all those things, to look at our processes and our procedures and how we can safely provide an education to our students here in Orangeburg," Foster said.

"We have not finalized anything," he continued. "We are coming together and having those discussions. Yes, we have to expedite those discussions so that our community has an opportunity to prepare for whatever that looks like.” He said the community also has to have input.

In addition to students, Foster said any reopening plan will also need to take school teachers and employees into consideration.

"There is child care -- there are a ton of things we have to consider because someone has to be there to help instruct that child, whether it be in a hybrid model, face-to-face or virtually," he said. "Someone has to support all of those children no matter how it looks. We have to support our employees as well."

Foster said the pandemic’s challenges require everyone to be flexible.

"We are going to have to learn to evolve," he said. "We have to evolve with the opportunities that are given to us and the circumstances that surround us, but we also can't let the things happening around us happen to us."

For those parents having to teach their children at home, Foster called for patience.

"I am an educator and I have had to have my own two children at home," he said. "I understand first and foremost the challenge that requires."

He said that as the superintendent, he will seek to support parents not only in their educational health, but also the emotional and social health required for a different classroom model.

"Education to me is not just about educating," Foster said. "It is about supporting the system, which includes the family. We have to look at all those aspects looking forward."

"It is an uncomfortable space, and we are going to have to at some point be comfortable with being uncomfortable," he said.

Getting

his feet wet

Foster says his first days as superintendent have been full.

"Full with great interaction with people. Good work. We are just now trying to chart a path forward and making sure we are trying to cross all our t’s and dot all our i’s,” he said.

Foster sat down with senior staff and the outgoing interim superintendent, Dr. Darrell Johnson, to receive some background on the district.

He also reached out to every school principal by phone and thanked the district faculty and community for taking a "vote of confidence" to allow him to serve as superintendent.

Foster, who lives in the Aiken area, is in the process of readying his house for the real estate market, with plans to move to Orangeburg.

"The one thing I like most about Orangeburg is the people," he said. "The openness and the friendliness, it is something that is just not everywhere."

Foster said he’s been welcomed by everybody.

"It does not matter if male, female, black, white, green or orange. It has been a welcoming with open arms. You can't trade that,” he said.

Servant leader

The next few months will be a time of listening and learning, Foster said.

"No good leader comes in with a plan without learning people, without listening to those individuals who have made this district run so many years prior to you getting there," he said.

Foster said he is making sure all processes are in place, as his motto will be "Tough on process and easy on people."

"That is how I want to lead," he said. "I want to make sure everybody understands the process."

"It is clear, but it is a process that works for our students, and it involves people and makes people feel like they are a part of the team," he continued. "Where they have assets, where they have expertise, we are able to pull out that expertise."

Foster has set up a preliminary entry plan that will be centered on listening and learning.

He said his goals include building trust and collaboration among the school board, senior staff, cabinet and stakeholders; establishing a positive culture and climate between the district office and schools; maintaining safety and security for employees and students; and ensuring students receive a high-quality education.

Foster plans to be on the front lines in being an advocate for the school district on the local, state and federal levels.

"We have to advocate for what our needs are here in this community," he said. "We have to have a unified voice, but also a unified mission and vision in order to communicate. That is how you lobby and how you request for resources."

Foster plans to listen to the concerns of the Orangeburg County Legislative Delegation, Orangeburg County Council, the county's 17 mayors, higher education and the Regional Medical Center.

"I have to bring a vision to the table as well," he said.

Foster said he will also engage with the local real estate sector to ensure the message of education is clear.

"We have to have a single message in regards to education," he said. "That is a key indicator if and how people choose where they are going to live and where they are going to send their children."

Implementing

consolidation

Foster comes in the district's second year of consolidation.

Foster, who attended a number of the community forums when consolidation was being discussed, said from his perspective, consolidation "has gone as expected."

"There are challenges, there are some struggles, there are some uncertainties," he said. "When someone says this has been a tradition of ours that I have had for the last 50 years and now I am fearful that tradition that I am so used to coming home to may no longer be there, that is fearful position."

"We have to know where those sacred things are -- hold on to those, but also make sure we are all on board with building our own traditions as well," he said.

Foster said things will not be the same because the county is now under one school district, but he said there needs to be an openness on the part of all to learn from each other as the district moves forward.

"We all want the same things for children," Foster said. "We just have to decide how we are going to get there and that everybody is heard."

Tested in fire

Foster grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in poverty in a single-parent home.

He was raised by his mother, his grandmother and his five aunts, putting him in a unique situation as the only male in his immediate family.

It was where he learned at a young age to be a leader.

"I remember days when we had a family superstition where on New Year's Eve, it was supposedly good luck to have a male walk through the house," Foster recalled. "So at 3 or 4 years old, I remember my grandma, my mom and my aunt saying, 'You are the man,' and I would have to walk through the house.

"I have been the man and leader in that regard since I have been a child, but it also gave me an opportunity to respect different cultures, different sexes and to understand the power of family.

“We didn't have much, and many times we went without, but we never went without love and support from each other."

Foster said bringing people together has been a part of his life ever since.

"It has made me who I am," he said. "It is the fiber that made my life what it is."

Foster experienced another test.

Two years ago, he entered into a battle for his life with stage 4 cancer

Foster was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer. There was a tumor behind his nose, which required chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

He described the time with cancer as the most difficult but most rewarding of his entire life, where he grew in faith and trust in God.

"Strangely enough, I say cancer was the best thing that could have happened to me," Foster said. "If I had known it would have given me the perspective I now have on life on what is important and the priorities, I would have asked for cancer 20 years ago.

"It allowed me to value truly what time is. The one thing that is the most precious thing we have no control over is time.

"When the sun sets today, that day is gone. When you have gone through the fight and you have looked your mortality in its face, you realize that one thing I can do is maximize time I have been given."

Foster said American author and poet Albert Pike's insight that “what we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal” has remained with him since he recovered from cancer.

"Those of us in education have a grand opportunity to truly become immortal because what we do for children, they will be talking about that for generations," Foster said.

In December 2018, Foster learned his cancer was in remission.

He remains cancer free.

Foster is a man of faith and family.

He has been married to his wife, Tanya, for 15 years. They have two children, 9-year-old Aden and 13-year-old Alyx.

Foster considers his home church as New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Greer.

He also attends Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, where a high school classmate of his is the pastor.

Community

involvement

Foster has always seen his service as going beyond education.

He has been actively involved in the Kiwanis Club, both in Spartanburg and in Aiken. He has also served on the board of Rural Health Services, a community health clinic in Aiken.

"You have to get involved in those organizations," he said. "Education is just one leg of a stool. I have to be present."

Foster said that as a member of RHS, he has been able to bring a key perspective to the board.

"I understand health care can be a barrier to academic success," he said. "If a child can't hear, if a child can't see, if a child is not feeling well, they can't learn to their maximum potential."

"We have to think outside the box and be innovative to get those services, especially those services to rural areas, so children have the opportunity to maximize their God-given talent," he said. "We just can't sit back and just function in a silo or in a vacuum. It has to be a communitywide approach."


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'Just Mercy' marchers call for police reform; Orangeburg event focuses on criminal justice, public safety

A group marched through Orangeburg on Saturday morning to highlight the need for police reform.

About 15 people marched from the All-Star Triangle bowling alley on Russell Street to the Orangeburg County Courthouse in the event themed “Just Mercy.”

When they arrived at the courthouse, the marchers were met by more supporters.

Barbara Williams, NAACP Orangeburg Branch president, spoke at the courthouse about police reform.

“Police reform is the aim to transform the value, the culture, the policies and practices of police organizations so that police will and can perform their duties with respect for democratic values, civil rights, human rights and the rule of law,” Williams said.

Williams said there is a need to investigate a pattern of policing that violates civil rights and involves systemic racism and inequality.

“Public safety and criminal justice is one of the NAACP’s six game changers. We’ve always fought for people, against racially motivated policing strategies,” Williams said.

Williams also said there is a need to improve police and community relationships, a need to improve police transparency and accountability and re-allocate some police funds.

“When they say defund police, they’re not saying take away police permanently,” she said.

Williams said more funding should go to other services in the community, such as “social workers, health personnel, social services, and school psychologists, psychiatrists, and education, housing, and youth services.”

“Effective change is never easy. Change is a law of life,” Williams said.

Kelvin Gadson, founder of the Giving a Child a Dream Foundation also spoke during the event.

Gadson said there is a need for equality and mercy.

“We’re here because of the police brutality and the injustice in the juvenile system. We’re here for just mercy, that’s all we want. We just want mercy,” Gadson said.

“We want the same rights that everybody else gets,” Gadson said.

Like Williams, Gadson also encouraged improving the relationship between police and the community, specifically with the youth.

Gadson expressed his respect for the police, but also called for fair treatment.

“All we’re asking from the police is a chance. Look at us like we’re somebody,” Gadson said.