Berea Middle School’s principal huddled with the counselor, the nurse, and some teachers, discussing why a new group of students had been flagged for spotty attendance by the school’s early-warning system.
In one case, homeless siblings were living in a car with their family. But a recent accident had made the car inoperable.
“Where are they now?” Principal Robin Mill asks. “Do you know what they need? Is it absolutely everything?”
By the end of the lengthy back and forth, the educators hatched a multi-part plan for the students: New backpacks filled with food, a shopping trip for new clothes, and a place for them to shower before class. A search for housing, they pledged, would come next.
This detailed examination of students’ attendance, behavior, and academic record goes on routinely in the 77,000-student Greenville County district here. That work is a central tenet of Superintendent W. Burke Royster’s pledge to keep students—especially those in some of the district’s poorest communities—in school, engaged in their learning and firmly on track to graduate.
Known as OnTrack Greenville, the district has forged partnerships with social service providers and community organizations to spot, and knock down, hurdles to students’ ability to learn and thrive in school, Royster says.
“We have the ability to very early on, and quickly, identify those students who are being affected by those barriers,” he says.
Royster, 58, has been an educator for nearly 40 years, the past decade in Greenville County. He has been the superintendent since 2012.
He started his career as a coach and teacher at Starr-Iva Middle School in nearby Anderson, S.C., and later became a high school principal. He followed in the footsteps of his father, William Royster, who was a schools superintendent in South Carolina.
His father’s schooling experience has had a deep impact on Royster’s leadership and where he places his priorities as schools chief in Greenville County, where nearly 60 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In 2016, nearly 80 percent of graduating seniors said they were planning to go to college, while 21 percent said they intended to enter the military or the workforce.
Royster’s father came from a family of 12 and was the only one who earned a college education—a situation not dissimilar to many of Greenville County’s students. Royster says his father credited a teacher named Lee Dobbins for taking an interest in his education and showing him college was possible.
As superintendent, Royster sees his role as creating the conditions and opportunities to allow principals and teachers to be “Lee Dobbins” for their students.
Royster also draws from his father’s experience as a schools chief, especially when he must make tough or unpopular decisions and stick to them.
“Certainly you want to listen to people, you want to make sure you consider their viewpoints, but, at some point, it is your decision to make …,” he says. “Then you have to say ‘this is what we are going to do, this is the right thing to do, this is the best thing to do.’ ”
Middle School Focus
OnTrack Greenville began several years ago in a conversation Royster had with local United Way leaders, who were already pursuing efforts to break multigenerational cycles of poverty in the community. Those conversations, he explains, led to a tightly coordinated effort between the district, the United Way of Greenville County, and other community partners to tackle poor attendance, raise academic achievement, and boost graduation rates in the White Horse Road community, a section of the county with the highest concentrations of poverty.
Focused on students who attend three middle schools and a special, early-college program for low-income students, the early-warning systems give educators in those schools major clues to behavior or attendance problems that could derail students from moving toward high school, and later, on-time graduation.
In the color-coded system, green means a student is on track, with no signs to signal a bigger problem. Students flagged either as orange or red for getting failing grades, racking up too many absences, or being disruptive at school—trigger interventions. Outside partners with different expertise and services—the Greenville Health System, Building Educated Leaders for Life, Communities in Schools, and Public Education Partners—are central to the services that OnTrack students receive.
Fueling the OnTrack work—now in its second year—is $3 million that the United Way of Greenville County secured in 2014 from the federal Social Innovation Grant Fund, as well as additional financial support from local philanthropies.
Royster is also pushing for deeper student engagement across all grades and schools in the 800 square-mile district, revamping a number of programs to ensure students are motivated to come to school, graduate, and be prepared for college and work.
Part of that momentum is driven by the explosion of high-tech and manufacturing jobs in the area in the last decade or so as Fortune 500 companies such as BMW Manufacturing Co., General Electric, and Michelin moved to or expanded operations in Greenville and adjacent Spartanburg County. The jobs at those companies are not traditional manufacturing jobs, and new district course offerings such as engineering and mechatronics—a blend of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer control, and information technology—aim to prepare students for those high-skilled areas.
New focused areas include business, marketing and management; arts, communication, and information; environmental and agricultural systems; health science; human resources and services; and industrial manufacturing and engineering systems.
Royster is not limiting new, specialized programs to secondary students. The district is starting to expose students earlier to some of these pathways, beginning in middle school.
We do a much better job of what we do when we work in partnership.
Another key part of his push is Graduation Plus, built on the idea that all students will leave the district with a high school diploma and something else. That “something else” could be earning credits toward a college degree, a certificate in a technical or vocational field, or a fully completed vocational or post-secondary certificate.
Royster believes partnerships are crucial to accomplishing this goal, whether it’s working with local universities to provide college exposure for students, businesses to provide mentors, internships, and jobs for students once they graduate, or nonprofits that provide other supports for students.
“We do a much better job of what we do when we work in partnership—in the home, community, business, industry,” he says.
Credibility in the Community
Royster’s team credits him with building on the progress that started under his predecessor, Phinnize Fisher. But he wasn’t a shoo-in for the job as the board deliberated on whether it needed an insider or an outsider to go in a new direction. The vote was 7-5 in Royster’s favor. Five years later, he’s won the confidence of the current board, especially for his insistence that the district pursue a more personalized approach for engaging students and teaching them.
“There used to be a focus on thinking that whatever the instructional delivery model might be… all students would receive the information in the same way, and at the same time,” says Crystal Ball O’Connor, the chairwoman of the 12-member school board. “Dr. Royster has pushed the district forward to say ‘that’s not really the case. What can we do to focus on individualizing learning so that we start with where students are and where they need to be, and offer a variety of instructional approaches to help them be successful.’ ”
Royster’s style is to avoid micromanaging. He sets the agenda, but gives principals and staff the latitude to execute it.
With OnTrack, principals whose schools participate have flexibility to decide what support services their students need most. Other principals can decide—in consultation with their supervisors and communities—what alternative options they will offer students under the Graduation Plus initiative.
And Royster’s years in the classroom and principal’s office bestowed him with deep knowledge about instruction, finance, and operations.
“He’s the smartest guy in the room—there is no doubt,” says Charles Mayfield, the principal of J.L. Mann High School. “There is nothing he doesn’t know.”