Superintendent-elect says she'll be more positive

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Superintendent-elect Molly Spearman says she wants to bring an optimistic, collaborative approach to improving South Carolina's schools.

The former director of the state Association of School Administrators takes over in January from Mick Zais, who had a contentious relationship with both the State Board of Education and teacher advocacy groups.

Spearman comes into office two months after the state Supreme Court ruled legislators must do more to help children in poor districts succeed. Her tenure also begins amid changes to the state's math and English standards and to how teachers are evaluated.

Spearman's career began in the classroom. She worked as a music teacher for 18 years, then two years as an assistant principal. Her other roles include legislator, deputy superintendent and chief of staff at the state education agency. She sat down with The Associated Press to talk about her new job.

Q: What are your top priorities as you take office?

A: I want to get the positive message out to our citizens about the many wonderful things that are happening in schools all across the state. I don't think we've talked about our successes enough. I don't think we have thanked our teachers and our principals enough for the jobs they're doing. There's innovation bubbling up in classrooms all across the state. ...

Secondly, I'm going to focus on leadership and leadership development for our teachers and for our principals. I truly believe that in order to keep great teachers in schools, you first have to have a great principal.

Q: So how do we get good principals?

A: We have to assess potential candidates to see if they have the skills and knowledge to go into that role. ... They have to know how to be a manager of people and they've got to know how to run an organization.

Q: And for teachers?

A: On teacher quality, the biggest issue is out in the very rural areas. They have a hard time attracting, but they're telling me even if they get a good teacher, they can't keep them, because they get pulled away to other districts. That's probably the biggest challenge, and I don't have the full solution. I think there are some incentives we need to come up with to reward high-quality teachers for staying in rural areas. ...

But again, teachers will stay in a school if they feel the support and they have strong leadership. With technology, we have to look at sharing resources and teachers. There are some new tools and higher quality virtual programs that could help us in this teacher quality issue in very rural areas.

Q: How do you foresee the teacher evaluation changes going?

A: The pilot model is out there. There's a lot of anxiety. We have been trying to do too much too fast. The vast majority of our teachers are fine teachers doing a good job, and they need always to be improving, and that's what the evaluation system should help them do. For that small group not being effective ... we want a process that identifies those folks and helps them find something else very quickly. ...

They're anxious because the new evaluation system has a large percentage of it based on how well their students do on the standards, and we are changing our standards at the same time. ... We're going to get it done, but everybody needs to realize all of this needs to slow down a bit, and let's make sure we get it right.

Q: How will you urge the legislators to respond to the court order?

A: I see my role as state superintendent to be sort of a mediator and encourager, with or without the ruling. I hope to bring ideas and solutions to the Legislature for them to consider. It will be focused on teacher quality and time on task for at-risk students. ... We've got to look at more after-school programs and summer programs because research shows that even if you get a student caught up in the school year and they go home where there's no nurturing over the summer, they come back further behind, so that gap keeps getting wider. ... They can learn a lot in informal settings. It doesn't all have to happen in a classroom.

Q: How will your leadership style and policies differ from your predecessor?

A: That whole philosophy of enjoying it and making learning fun and patting teachers on the back — that will be the biggest difference. Some of the basic philosophies may be similar, but the leadership style will be more positive, and we have to collaborate. You have to involve the people who are going to be doing the work in the decision-making and in the solution-making. I will be involving the folks who are out in the field in all the decisions I make.

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