King Laurence said his more than 20 years of experience in Aiken County Public Schools should serve him well as the district's new superintendent.
Members of the Aiken County School Board approved his position Sep. 18 by a vote of seven to two at a special called meeting. Laurence had been the district's interim superintendent since September when then board members accepted the resignation of Dr. Sean Alford, the former superintendent.
“It's been a rich career, a lot of different experiences, a lot of things that I think helped prepare me for the things that might come my way as superintendent,” he said Feb. 19 in his office at Brookhaven, the district office. “I feel good about the varied experiences I've had.”
After working as a teacher and an assistant principal in Edgefield County, Laurence came to Aiken County in 1998 to be the principal of Busbee Elementary School in Wagener. After about seven years there, he moved to the district office to be the director of federal programs.
After another seven years, he became the district's associate superintendent for instruction and later, until his appointment as interim superintendent, the chief officer for administration and human resources.
Laurence, 58, grew up and went to school in Enoree in Spartanburg County, where his father, Rufus Laurence, still lives. Laurence will be there soon to celebrate his dad's birthday on Feb. 29, Leap Day.
“It will be his 20th birthday, but he will be 80 years old,” Laurence said.
Laurence's family moved to Edgefield when he was in high school, and he graduated from Strom Thurmond High. He also graduated from USC Aiken.
“I had a great experience there,” he said.
After he was named superintendent Feb. 18, Laurence said some of his long-term goals are teacher recruitment and retention, curriculum assessment and instruction and discipline and school safety. Although Feb. 19 was only his first official day on the job and he plans to talk to teachers, students and parents before going forward with future plans, he offered some more details about those goals.
Recruitment and retention
Concerning recruitment, Laurence said the district will continue to encourage new education graduates in Aiken County to stay in Aiken County; recruit new teachers from outside South Carolina; and talk to retirees about returning to the classroom. Laurence said the district should encourage high school – and also middle school – students to consider education as a career.
“Over the years, the number teachers that South Carolina universities has produced has progressively gotten smaller,” Laurence said. “We need to make education a career of choice again for our students and encourage them to see that career path as a rich future.”
Concerning retention, Laurence said letting teachers know they are “appreciated” is important.
“We need to make sure that we're giving them the support they need in their classrooms and giving them the freedom and flexibility they need to do a very difficult job while recognizing that it's a very difficult job and encouraging them in any way that we can,” he said. “We need to look at ways we can make the work environment better for them, just creating that encouraging, positive atmosphere in which people can work and grow.”
Although the district can offer teachers little in monetary incentives to stay in the classroom, it can provide professional development to help teachers grow.
“I think that's really more important than whatever increases we can come up with in salaries,” Laurence said. “It's more important that teachers know they have the ability to grow in their profession and be creative and have some autonomy and meet the needs of their students.”
Laurence said student assessment is a “critical, important conversation we need to have right now moving forward.”
“As to what assessments are absolutely necessary and what assessments are giving us the information that our teachers need, if they are of great value, we need to make sure people understand that they are of great value and we focus on those things,” Laurence said. “If we determine they're not of great value, then we need to set them aside and provide more classroom instructional time for out teachers.”
But Laurence said the district needs to move forward with “eyes open” and not abandon assessments for the sake of abandoning them.
“We need to make sure that everything makes sense,” Laurence said. “We don't want to do anything that doesn't make sense to our teachers, to our students and to our parents.”
Laurence said he is excited about the thematic programs – including the language immersion program at three elementary schools, the Cambridge International program at Aiken High and Schofield Middle and the AP academies at South Aiken High and North Augusta High – the former superintendent put in place.
“The response has been incredible and exciting. We're constantly getting visitors to those schools,” he said. “I see community excitement. I see school personnel getting excited. Our families and students are excited. That's infectious. When you're coming to school and you're enthusiastic about what you're doing, the learning is going to be easier.”
Laurence said he will seek input from school personnel and community stakeholders on programs moving forward as superintendent.
“The last five months, I've certainly been asking a lot of questions and paying attention, but I was still in an interim role, now it's time to take a good hard look at everything we're doing, have those conversations with our teachers who are on the front lines with our principals every day, with our community members and with our families as we decide what are the critical things we need to focus our attention on going forward,” he said.
Safety and discipline
Laurence said the district's No. 1 priority is “to keep kids safe every day,” adding the district has improved and has plans to improve infrastructure and facilities to ensure student safety.
“Our mission is to teach kids. Our mission is to prepare them for the workforce or for the military or a two- or four-year institution or careers, but we can't do any of that if our students aren't safe,” he said.
Laurence said discipline always comes up as a topic of conversation.
“We hear parents and community members ask those questions, but it's also a matter of analyzing the facts and determining what's really happening in our schools and what's the perception,” he said.
Laurence said he might walk through a dozen hallways and twice as many classrooms and never see any disruptions or discipline issues.
“But we do know there are disruptions and things do happen in our school most days. We have 40 schools,” he said. “We want to make sure our teachers have the experience, the training, the tools they need to address those things as they come up and the support of their administration so they know they're supported and feel safe and know that we've got their backs.”
Laurence said principals, too, need to know the district supports them and that they have tools to address discipline.
“We've got a very good Code of Conduct, and almost everything that might come up is probably addressed in the Code of Conduct,” he said. “We update it every year, and it seems there always are one or two things we haven't thought about. It can't be a static document because our society and technology are changing. We have to keep up.”
Laurence said he wants students, teachers, administrators and community members to know that the district takes the Code of Conduct very seriously.
“We want our students to behave in a certain way, and there are specific responses that we should adhere to consistently,” he said. “We don't want to lose a single student. We want all of our students to be successful. But there might be times when we have to steer a student in another direction.”
That direction might be outside a traditional school setting such as alternative or virtual school, Laurence said. Some behaviors might require separating a student from the district.
“But whatever happens, we want what's best for our students in a safe and secure environment, and that has to come first,” he said. “We've got to ensure that our schools are safe and secure, that our teachers feel supported, that our students feel supported and that our parents feel safe sending their kids to our schools.”
Laurence graduated from USCA in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in education, according to a news release from the school district. He earned his master’s degree in educational administration in 1990 from the University of South Carolina. He is licensed and certified to serve as a school superintendent by the South Carolina Department of Education.
Laurence serves as the president of the Sunrise Rotary Club and has served on the Education Matters Board of Directors, a group he chaired from 2015-17. He was a charter member of Aiken County First Steps and has served as a board member and vice chair of the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center Advisory Board at USCA from 2013 to 2016.
Laurence is the 2016 Recipient of the Robert E. Alexander Outstanding K-12 Administrator of the Year Award and also received a State Leadership Award from the National Association of Federal Education Program Administrators in 2012.