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South Carolina's Largest District off to Smooth Start

Dr-FisherLast Tuesday night, Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher, Superintendent of Greenville County Schools, gave what will likely be her final school opening report. Dr. Fisher has submitted her resignation and is expected to leave the district as soon as a replacement is hired and given sufficient time for orientation.

Fisher assumed the duties of superintendent in May 2004 on very short notice due to the sudden resignation (or firing) of Dr. William Harner. (The reason for Harner’s hasty departure was never made public due to a secrecy pact agreed to by the departing superintendent and the school board.)

Dr. Fisher was considered to be the best qualified applicant for superintendent when she joined the district and became the assistant to Dr. Rudolph Gordon and and then Dr. William Harner before taking the helm of the largest district in South Carolina. She is expected to retire after more than 40 years as teacher and administrator before the end of this calendar year. The school board has already hired a search firm to find a replacement for the Superintendent.

Dr. Fisher earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Paul’s College in Virginia and earned her masters and doctoral degrees from Rutgers. She also completed post-graduate studies at UCLA and the University of Utah.

Dr. Fisher began her career as a teacher in New Jersey in 1969 and served in Montgomery County Maryland Schools for 10 years before coming to Greenville County.

The School District of Greenville County serves some 70,300 students from 4K through Grade 12 in 96 schools and centers. The district has 8,650 permanent full and part-time employees of which 5,200 are teachers. More than 26,000 of the students ride to and from school on one of the 358 buses operated by the district.

Some outside observers consider the district to be too large to manage. Without support of the teachers, parents and staff, some past superintendents have found the job overwhelming.

Leadership ability seems to be a natural attribute for Dr. Fisher.  In part, she attributes her management success to applying advice from Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first.

Dr. Fisher explained how she applies the Mark Twain advice:

“Each January, when everything is in place for the current year and we begin preparing for the next school year, we could easily be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the challenge we face. After all, counting both students and teachers, we have almost 80,000 people and over 600 miles of area for which we are responsible. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, we methodically break down our ‘complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks’ and we get the work done.

“But it takes everyone working as a team to facilitate a successful opening and it takes steady and accurate communication between departments and with our external stakeholders.

“Since we have many departments and all of them are necessary to keep our school district successful, I will use transportation as an example of an individual department that can only be successful if everyone performs their ‘small manageable tasks.’

“As if preventative maintenance, bus driver hiring and training, and repair work were not enough to occupy a summer, the transportation department must plan for and route the pick up and drop off of more than 26,000 riders for the first day of school.

“For transportation to be successful, it is incredibly important that parents notify schools of their children’s intentions to ride the bus well in advance of the first day of school. It is equally important that the school accurately input the student’s information and code that child as a bus-rider. To ensure the safety of the transportation process, school personnel must ensure that students 4K, 5K, and 1st grade are properly tagged and placed on the right bus. For the system to work smoothly, an adult must also be on hand at the bus stop with the matching tag, to complete the drop-off procedure.

“Of course, when the students are picked up at one place in the morning and dropped off at another in the afternoon the challenges are multiplied.

“Before parents can notify a school or register their child, they must know their correct school assignment.

“Before the student assignment department can be sure of all children’s assignments, magnet applications must be processed, special permission completed, and the special education department must plan and communicate the number and type of special education classes across the district, and identify the classes that are most appropriate for each of our special needs students. So you can see the ripple effect of behind the scenes work that occurs before a parent can even make a decision about their child’s transportation.

“And once the decision is made, how do parents know that they need to register their children for school – or request transportation? That’s where our communications department comes in.

“Other departments also do their part to help transportation run smoothly.

“After all, human resources assists transportation in the hiring of the bus drivers, finance ensures that money is on hand to pay for fuel, parts, driver training, and other costs, teaching and learning organizes Summer Academy which provides professional development opportunities to staff as well as teachers and administrators, and the Board votes on the budget which allows us to go forward with our summer plans for hiring, training, and communicating from the first day of the new fiscal year.

“As a result of the efforts of all 8,650  of our permanent full and part-time employees, we had the best school opening in memory – even though we expected a record 70,300 students at our 96 schools and centers. On day one, our 5,200 teachers were in place, prepared, and excited about the  potential that is inherent in all students.

“We had 358 buses on the road the first day of school – 235 of them were running regular routes, 104 were transporting special needs students, 11 were used to get magnet students to their destinations, and 8 were meeting the federal requirement of No Child Left Behind.

“On the first day of school books were distributed, expectations were explained, busses were running, HVAC systems were operating, meals were served, syllabi were passed out, floors were shining, playgrounds were humming with activity, and learning was taking place all over the county.

“Our teachers, administrators, and staff have bought into the idea  of continuous improvement and strive to make each opening day – and each year – better than the one before.

“I believe in the exceptional abilities possessed by the employees of Greenville County Schools, and they believe in themselves. Best of all, our teachers are instilling the same ‘attitude of achievement’ in each of our students – helping them realize that they can do, learn, understand, and master skills and concepts that will provide them with the tools to enjoy a successful and fulfilling life.

“I Believe that by teaching our students the first secret of success, we will insure the growth and vitality of Greenville County for years to come.”

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