Richland 2 interim schools superintendent Debbie Hamm renewed and re-energized relationships with the Midlands business and professional community Thursday at a breakfast that drew about 275 people.
“Look at this atmosphere,” school board member Melinda Anderson said, surveying the crowd. “It’s glowing.”
For the first time, the district collaborated with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce in bringing school and business leaders together for the early morning gathering at Westwood, the district’s newest high school. Hamm, who was chosen as interim superintendent in June after the abrupt resignation of Katie Brochu, assured leaders this would be an inaugural event that would build momentum in coming years. The event drew professionals from SCANA, SCE&G, Midlands Tech, First Citizens Bank, and State Farm insurance, among others.
Some community leaders had grumbled that former superintendent Brochu was not visible enough in the community, fraying the longtime connections between the 27,000-student district and business, industry and community leaders. While Brochu had gained advocates among the district’s young teaching corps for her professional development, she endured criticism for a decline in standardized scores over her three-year tenure and for creating a climate of unease among veteran teachers and administrators.
One of Brochu’s most vocal critics, state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the change is palpable.
“I think there is a180-degree turn in the way the district is perceived both externally and internally,” Lourie said. “I’ve heard from business leaders; I’ve heard from parents and teachers, I’ve heard from principals. There is a renewed sense of enthusiasm.”
Lourie was among a number of elected leaders who attended the breakfast, including Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, and Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland.
Lourie believes the change in atmosphere is directly attributable to Hamm, who has nearly four decades of experience in Richland 2 administration. Hamm delivered State of the District remarks that included her signature “four-square” approach to education: Learning, character, community and joy.
She did not shy away from naming the district’s challenges, including a significant number of families in poverty. She said one in 8 children are transient in the district. “We are constantly in the process of assimilating students,” she said.
Regina Hampton Brown, Palmetto Health’s community and governor relations manager, said she welcomed the district’s outreach. The hospital system works with nine area school districts to introduce high school students to medical careers, from certified nursing assistants to registered nurses and physicians.
“This has always been or struggle to build a relationship with Richland 2 because they are so far” from the hospital, Brown said. Palmetto Health Baptist and Palmetto Health Richland are in the heart of the Richland 1 school district.
Her colleague, Val Richardson, Palmetto Health workforce development manager, said the hospital attends every career fair in Richland 2 and partners with health-related magnet programs in any way it can. “We know we have to start here,” she said, inside schools where students are learning about careers and setting a college and career path.
And that discussion should start as early as kindergarten, said Midlands Tech president Marshall “Sonny” White.
“No longer is it advisable to wait until the 12th grade to decide what we want to do,” White told the gathering. The global economy is moving rapidly and White said schools must be prepared to educate students with workplace skills as well as academic skills.