In this episode, we hear from Dr. Burke Royster, the Superintendent of Greenville County Schools, who discusses the district’s milestones and what’s ahead. The numbers speak volumes: 25,000 hours of college credit and $183 million in scholarship offers to the most recent graduating class for which data is available. Dr. Royster gives us a sneak peek into the new CTE Innovation Center, designed to prime students for cutting-edge sectors like aerospace and engineering, and he discusses challenges with the county’s significant growth. How does Greenville manage surging student numbers and ensure the best educators are on board? Tune in to hear how South Carolina’s largest school district crafts its success story.
Catherine Schumacher: I’m very excited to be here with Dr. Burke Royster, Superintendent of Greenville County Schools. Thank you for joining us today.
Burke Royster: Thank you. I appreciate the invitation to be a part of this.
Catherine Schumacher: So wanted to have a conversation as you know, it’s graduation season, the end of the school year, and it’s a time of recognition and celebration for all of our students and families, but also for the, you know, the Greenville County Schools team.
So we’d love for you to talk a little bit about some bright spots with the listeners. Like what are you seeing as really big wins for the school year that we just ended?
Burke Royster: Well, one of the things that is interesting to know about what we do, while this may seem to be the end of the year, which it is a culminating event and graduation. A lot of times the statistics that help us define what’s a great year, we don’t really know those till the fall of the following year. So what we do know about this year really reflects on the year proceeding, the one that we have numbers to show that we’ve greatly improved and we have greatly improved, and we have every reason to believe that that upward trend will continue through next year.
Our test scores are up. Our, uh, students completing college credits either through AP or through dual credit, those numbers are up, up to last year’s class, about 25,000 hours of college credit. It’s worth about 10 and a half million dollars in tuition if you’re gonna attend a public university in South Carolina. Over 8,000 industry certifications. Up an extremely large number from the previous year, but well over a thousand percent from past years. So we already know those about the year that we’re in, and the early indicators are that we will exceed those numbers going in to next school year as the wrap up for this year.
Our students last year, and we’ll have this number in just a few weeks, but we don’t have it quite yet. Our students were offered $183 million in scholarships, $20 million more than the previous year. Have every reason to believe in a couple of weeks when we know that final count, it will have exceeded $183 million. We also know that, uh, we’re making great strides in overcoming the learning that was missed during the pandemic. About 64% of our schools are back where they were prior to the pandemic or higher as far as student attainment measured by test scores. Our benchmark tests that we give internally indicate that that trend will continue into next year. So again, like we like to celebrate all those things that are positive and are happening for our graduating seniors, but we don’t yet and won’t have for three or four months, the final numbers that really prove that success that we’re so confident will be there.
Catherine Schumacher: There’s so much good work happening to support students and to build on those positive trends.
And, you know, the graduation plus initiative, which you know, is the signature initiative of your leadership here at Greenville County Schools. Um, it feels like it’s really transforming the way that we are helping students move through those sort of, you know, middle school to high school. And then on to, to what comes next.
So can you talk some about how that is influencing what the district is doing going forward, and, and I know that’s an area where we can talk about what’s on tap for, for next fall, particularly.
Burke Royster: It’s a key strategic condition for the district. In fact, it’s, it, it’s our focal point. Now we talk about graduation plus in terms of graduates and 12th graders, but it permeates the system from pre-K all the way through the 12th grade. Because students have to have a foundation. They have to have the base to take advantage of the opportunities they will have later on in their school career to show that they’re prepared for college and or career.
And by show, we want students to leave us with their diploma, but we want them to have either college credit on a transcript. Or hold in their possession industry recognized certifications and credentials. Or both. And we have a number of students who get both. We have about 61% of our graduates from this past year’s class who attain what we refer to as a plus.
So they either have college credit or they have industry certification, or they have both. 61% of them. Ideally, we want a hundred percent of them to have it. Unlike an ACT test or an SAT test or any other kind of test. It’s not a predictor that you can do these things. It’s proof. You can show a college admissions officer that you have college credit on your transcript, either through AP courses and AP testing or dual credit.
You can show any prospective employer that you have certifications that they recognize. They require their employees to possess. You already have those coming to them, whether it’s in auto tech or welding or interior firefighting or E M T or mechatronics or cosmetology or barbering. Any of a number of things that, uh, if I try to list ’em all, I will surely leave out.
Catherine Schumacher: Uh, well talk a little bit about, you know, following along that trend, the, the C T E Innovation Center that’s coming online in the fall, which is very exciting, um, in that space and, and talk about what the plan is for that and how that is going to impact the work in this graduation plus sphere.
Burke Royster: We currently have four career centers that serve regionally our 15 high schools, and they offer almost identical programs, one to each other to make sure that each program’s available to our students no matter where they reside in the county. A few years ago, We developed the idea of having an innovative career center, looking beyond the traditional courses we teach and really looking at to the future employment opportunities that are ramping up in our community and in our region and in our state. So we selected a site at the foot of Roper Mountain for the Roper Mountain Science Center right in coming into downtown Greenville, almost geographically central to Greenville County. So to facilitate students being able to get there from every part of the county. And we designed a building that’s set up to be able to use, be used for multiple careers. This is almost like a spec building that people often build to attract an industry that’s yet to be identified in. So we’ve constructed it with that theory in mind that these are programs we maybe can’t yet envision what they are.
And we have five slated for the opening and things like aerospace, well obviously a huge employer in our community, Lockheed Martin. So not just aircraft maintenance, which we already have, but looking beyond that to aerospace. Clean energy, hydrogen cell technology, cybersecurity, things like that. But with the idea that we start those programs there, if we get sufficient interest both from students in the programs and from being able to place, uh, graduates into job opportunities, we then roll those programs to the four career centers. And or directly to the high schools, depending on what kind of space they require, and they would be replaced by other programs that would be innovative and look into the next generation of employment.
Catherine Schumacher: It’s great. I, I think the Innovation Center is such an exciting, exciting investment for the district and the fact that you can see it when you drive in on 385, it’s right there. So it’s, it’s exciting for the community. Thinking about, you know, opportunities and challenges from some sort of my perspective, there are two, you know, real challenges.
How are we addressing the incredible growth that we’re seeing across the district. Um, but then also, you know, how are we supporting teachers? How are we attracting and retaining the best teachers and staff, um, and all of the, the human capital that, that we need to, to support students. How do you, from your perspective, leading this very large district, you know, obviously it’s the largest district in the state, what is the district doing in those two areas, sort of growth and then educator support?
Burke Royster: When you look at growth, it immediately has two impacts to us, uh, impacts from a fiscal standpoint. The first one being we’ve gotta have space for these students to come into. Now we do a long range facility plan. We revise it annually. Everybody wants to look at it. It’s online on, on the school district website.
It will show the community or anybody who’s interested what our building plans are for the next, generally speaking up to 12 years and we actually look beyond 12 years, but we put out publicly and we present to our board for approval, a 10 to 12 year plan. ‘Cause so much can change, but we’re looking as far out as 20 years
Catherine Schumacher: And are you already accelerating that planning process?
Burke Royster: We’ve accelerated the implementation. Now the planning process remains the same. We’re doing it annually, which, which our planning and demographics department works year round to help produce the annual update to that long range facility plan. What we want to do is we wanna build just ahead of time is to the best of our ability to do so.
We don’t want to construct classrooms and take, building fund tax dollars, ultimately dollars from all of us as taxpayers and build something way before we need it. Nor do we want to be chasing growth. Where in Greenville County, 20 years ago, there may have been five, 600 portables in use, five or 600 in use in the district. We now consistently have about 20 in use to meet some temporary needs. Uh, generally located on school grounds where we’re about to add classroom space. So we don’t wanna be in the business of housing students routinely in portables. We wanna stay just in front of growth where we’re not taking money before we need to take it, nor are we having students in a less desirable learning environment.
The second challenge that we meet annually is the need to employ personnel to teach the students that are added, and that’s anywhere from 12 to 1800 a year. And to provide the support employees that we need to provide the services to the teachers that are teaching those students. Almost all of our employment at the school level, just about every position in the school, except for two or three, are determined by formula. You have so many students, you get so many teachers, you get so many clerical people, you get so many counselors. Every year in our general fund budget, there will be a line item ranging from two to $4 million just to employ the people to meet the demands of growth so that we can maintain the same student teacher ratios we currently have and that you can get support personnel in the same ratio that you currently get those.
Catherine Schumacher: So as a community, what, how can we continue to be supportive and invest in the schools, in, in meaningful and, and high impact ways?
Burke Royster: We’re adding teachers every year. Absent anybody leaving, we’re gonna need more teachers next year than we need this year. And certainly we’re always gonna have people that leave, people retire.
75% of our administrative jobs are appointments from within. So people get promotions. You have people whose spouse may be transferred and they move away, or they move away for other reasons. And they go on to do other things. You have people who may decide it’s more convenient now for me to work in Greenville than to work in Anderson, though I live in Anderson ’cause of where I live. On the other hand, we may have people who live in Greenville because of where they live and the job opportunities.
Geographically in the county, it might be more convenient for me to work in Anderson County or in Spartanburg County. So there’s movement in and around districts in the upstate, a lot of which may be related to convenience. What we wanna make sure is that we are as competitive as we can possibly be, and we consistently rank in the top in teacher pay.
10 years ago we were 23rd in the state outta 77, 78 school districts. We now consistently rank second or third in the state in beginning teacher pay. We’re at the very top in average teacher pay, and we are the highest district in the state for experienced teacher pay. In fact, the recommendation we have before the board for the budget for pay for the coming year for teachers, we would have teachers not counting any sort of supplemental work they do like coaching where they get extra income, simply their responsibilities as a teacher, we will have teachers that salaries over a hundred thousand dollars a year.
But our pay is equally competitive, particularly with those most experienced teachers, in many cases, paying seven or $8,000 a year more than our surrounding districts. To do that annually there’s no other way to do this. It requires us to recommend to our board some form of tax increase. It would be very rare that we could ever maintain competitive salaries without some tax increase, and our board has been extremely supportive of that. Ensuring that we get and can keep our best teachers and get the best teachers to come into the district.
So that obviously requires the support of our community to be willing to pay that little bit extra for most people. ‘Cause you don’t pay taxes for school operating purposes on the home you live in is to pay a little bit more on the cars you own, or the truck or the boat. Generally speaking, it’s a few cents a year.
So it certainly requires the supportive effort of our community to be willing to contribute to that effort. It also would be very helpful if all the members of our community would help us to recruit people. I doubt there are many people that don’t have an acquaintance, a relative, a friend who may be a teacher.
We need them to be an extension of our recruitment efforts to share with the positives of being here and working here. In addition to very competitive salaries, we obviously have excellent facilities. We have technology that’s up to date. We refresh our technology every three years for students and for employees.
One thing we hear from teachers that have come to us from other places, the tremendous numbers of staff development opportunities we have for them to expand their skills and the tremendous level of support they get, both of which are functions of our size. As you noted earlier, we’re the largest school district in the state.
Almost twice the size of the next largest and we’re the 46th largest in the country. We can have opportunities. We see ’em all the time. And the opportunity we have for students, the things we have to, for them to earn college credit, industry certification, fine arts center, the, the myriad of opportunities we have for students.
We don’t always focus as much on that. We have similar type opportunities for our teachers and other employees.
Catherine Schumacher: Again, the schools sit and the school district sits within every aspect of this community, workforce development, housing, everything. And so, I think it’s great to have an opportunity to hear how complex and integrated the approach is of your leadership to sort of move students forward, to support our educators, and, um, and connect families with the community and our schools.
Thank you for your leadership. It is challenging, we know, but we’re really grateful and you have a great team here at Greenville County Schools. So thank you for the time to speak with us today.
Burke Royster: Thank you.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.
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