S. Carolina school official who led through crisis to retire
ANDERSON, S.C. (AP) — At the end of each school year, every Anderson District 4 high school graduate sees Joanne Avery’s name on a handwritten note congratulating them. Many already know who she is.
“She’ll come to schools and check on kids,” said Denise Fredericks, principal of Townville Elementary School. “I’ve got elementary students who can tell you who Dr. Avery is. They know her, and that’s unusual.”
After more than 30 years in the district, this year will be Superintendent Joanne Avery’s last. In March, she will retire and officially hand over the title to Dee Christopher, a high school principal in Fort Mill who the Anderson 4 board unanimously chose to be the next superintendent.
In the nearly six years Avery has been superintendent, she’s led the district through times of crisis.
Avery was in a conference room at the district office in 2016 when she got the call that a 14-year-old former student shot three children and a teacher at Townville Elementary School, killing 6-year-old Jacob Hall.
That day and in the days after, her leadership helped the school heal and grow, Fredericks said.
“We all learned more about the depth of care and love that a superintendent could have for staff and for students and for community,” Fredericks said. “I never saw her as an office job, but other people got to see at that point the heart that she puts into it and how she really cared. And that was true blue. That was her.”
In the years since the shooting, Avery has revamped security measures at every school in the district and become an advocate for reforming the way schools handle students who pose threats.
But that tragedy has not defined Townville Elementary, Avery said, though students and staff think often about Jacob.
In 2018, the school was given an “excellent” rating on its state report card, which measures academic achievement and growth.
Last year, Avery was named South Carolina’s 2020 superintendent of the year.
She said she planned on retiring at the end of that school year, but the coronavirus pandemic put her plans on hold. District staff met all summer to put together a plan for safely reopening schools this fall. Even teachers who were wary about returning said they put their full trust in Avery.
“I’ve met more about that than anything I’ve ever met about in my entire life,” said Nichole Boseman, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “She would bring the data, she would bring the facts, she brought her vision – we got a good feeling on where she stood on everything.”
Avery’s transparency on the district’s coronavirus plans has resulted in buy-in from the community, Fredericks said. Even though not everyone agreed with wearing masks, Fredericks said students and staff knew they had to do it for schools to be open, and so they have been.
The district started the year with a virtual option and kindergarten through eighth grade students on a full-time schedule, with high school students attending in cohorts every other day. In November, high school students will be back on a full schedule.
Avery said class sizes are small enough in the district, which has nearly 3,000 students, that students are able to sit six feet apart throughout the day, though the school day has been shortened by about an hour to accommodate reduced bus capacity.
“When it was all said and done, I made the decision to not start remotely,” Avery said. “If we just did what we put in writing, we shouldn’t have any issues with transmission and honestly we shouldn’t have any close contacts. And so I can sit here today and say we’re finishing seven weeks and we’ve mitigated the spread – we’ve had no spread.”
Since the start of the school year, the district has had fewer than two dozen students and staff report positive coronavirus cases, and no significant spread in schools.
Avery credits their successes so far to her staff, but her staff says she was an integral part of it.
When March comes, Avery will most miss seeing students every week and working with the staff she’s assembled throughout the years.
And her staff will miss her, too.
“We truly love her in this school and community,” Fredericks said. “I love her.”