The life of Baron Davis, from an upbringing in Columbia’s public housing complexes to superintendent of the Midlands’ largest school district, mirrors his hopes for each student in Richland 2.
“For Baron to come from Saxon Homes and Allen Benedict Court to be superintendent of Richland 2 is an amazing story,” said lifelong friend Chris Leevy Johnson. “Not too many people raised in the housing projects went beyond Decker Boulevard.
“Richland 2 was viewed as the elites ... the suburbs ... the people who had made it out,” said Leevy Johnson, who grew up in a family of lawyers, business owners and medical researchers in the Barhamville Estates subdivision near both public housing complexes. “There ain’t nothin’ ‘estate’ about it,” Leevy Johnson said, chuckling at the misnomer.
Davis, 45, is the first African-American superintendent in the 91-year history of Richland 2, the Midlands’ largest public school district. The job is an honor, one he is ready to take on. But it’s also an accomplishment.
He largely credits Alberta Hill, the grandmother who raised him from age 3, with the help of an uncle, Tim Davis, in Allen Benedict. Before that, Davis lived in Saxon Homes, now razed and rebuilt as Celia Saxon Homes.
The mention of Hill during a recent interview with The State newspaper brought Davis to tears. She died of cancer June 14 at age 81 before she could watch her grandson assume the post of superintendent July 1.
Hill was a giving and warm woman whom all her grandson’s friends called “grandma,” Davis said. She was a cafeteria worker for 40 years at what’s now Palmetto Health Baptist hospital in downtown Columbia.
She sacrificed so much for him, teaching Davis the meaning of the word. “I saw sacrifice play out daily ... my needs versus her needs,” he said.
Hill also taught him, and lived, respect for others and dignity. “Treat everybody as if they have purpose and ... dignity,” he recalls Hill saying. “It’s more about their actions than their title.
“My grandmother was an amazing woman,” Davis said, taking a few minutes to regain his composure.
Leevy Johnson said Davis learned well.
Davis has made it his mission to apply himself to education, to pay forward his good fortune and to advance the fruits of others’ hard work, Leevy Johnson said.
“He has been committed to helping people live out their God-given abilities,” said Leevy Johnson, a businessman, pastor and a life coach to the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team.
He’s also the father of two Richland 2 students, and his wife works as a librarian at a district middle school.
The man and the job
Stretching from portions of the city of Forest Acres to Pontiac in northeast Richland County, Richland 2 now educates 28,000 children a year.
The students come from a wide range of income, racial and ethnic backgrounds. In the past three decades, Richland 2 went from being all white, as were most local school districts, to what is known as a minority-majority district, where students speak more than 60 languages.
Student population growth has slowed a bit from the one-time 800 new pupils a year to around 300 a year, figures show.
Many parents and district leaders expect Davis to maintain the school system in the upper ranks of South Carolina’s public education.
“What I see in him is a person who has the work ethic and the smarts and the commitment to meet whatever challenges come his way,” said former Richland 2 Superintendent Stephen Hefner, who first noticed the potential in Davis in the early 2000s after Davis had been elevated to an assistant principal post at Spring Valley High School.
Hefner said he saw a bright future for Davis, especially after Davis ably navigated a touchy disciplinary matter at Spring Valley. He worked at that school for seven years – three as assistant principal, four as principal, Davis said.
“It was a difficult case involving many students and a number of families,” said Hefner, now superintendent at Lexington-Richland 5 in the Irmo-Chapin and Dutch Fork areas. “He had the look and the poise of someone who you would want representing you. He handled it beautifully.”
At the time, the district had 175 administrators, and Hefner said he didn’t necessarily spot a future superintendent in Davis. But the leadership skills were apparent. I’d love for you to say that: ‘Hefner takes full credit for him,’ ” the former boss said. “But that would not be true.”
Jerel Arceneaux, a parent of a third- and eighth-grader in the district, said he has come to know Davis while on the district’s Parent Advisory Council.
“The thing I like about Dr. Davis is that he’s about the students and promoting our school district,” said Arceneaux, a son of a Army family that came to Columbia as a teenager through Fort Jackson.
Navigating the ranks
Davis, who has not taught in a Richland 2 classroom, was a district assistant principal and principal before becoming one of the assistant superintendents.
He also worked in Richland 1 and Orangeburg 4 in his 21 years as a educator.
The school board selected him to take the helm in a 7-0 vote in 2016 and is paying him $186,312. Davis served a year under the tutelage of Superintendent Debbie Hamm.
Hamm called Davis an analytical thinker who does his homework and understands the district’s changing culture and educational demands.
“I think he’s very well prepared to be superintendent,” said Hamm, who worked 37 years there. “I think his academic chops are superior. People are going to be thrilled with the work that he does.”
Davis said the year of preparation with Hamm was both highly unusual in education circles and was well devised to help him transform from shadowing her and meeting education, community and business leaders to making decisions together. In the final phase that ended with Hamm’s departure in June, she had moved out of the superintendent’s office and he made the decisions while Hamm served as a coach, Davis said.
The experience led him to begin devising a formal district succession plan for the superientendent who will follow him, too.
His promotion marks the second consecutive time that Richland 2 picked its superintendent out of its ranks.
“Basically, we’re developing our bench,” Davis said.
While his primary focus will remain on maintaining and upgrading education, he wants to improve programs to attract and keep the best teachers and redesign the district’s virtual services, among other challenges.
“Our job is to propel our students to excel,” Davis said. “My vision for them is that by the time they graduate from high school in Richland School District 2, that they are aware of their passion, and they’re aware of their purpose, and that we have helped them to maximize their gifts and talents so they can pursue whatever pathway they desire.”
Davis, a 1990 graduate of C.A. Johnson High School in Richland 1, has a Ph.D. in educational counseling from USC. His master’s degrees, also from Carolina, are in educational counseling and educational administration. Davis earned his bachelor’s degree from Francis Marion University in sociology at a time when he considered a career in sociological research.
He also was an adjunct professor at several higher education institutions.
Arceneaux said one of the challenges facing Davis and the district is the rising population of low-income families.
“When you deal with children of poverty, you’re facing more challenges,” Arceneaux said, referring to less parental involvement in education because parents are consumed trying to provide for their families.
Besides the pressures that come with a rising and diverse student population, Davis will continue to be questioned by an organization that some in the district say is louder than its membership numbers merit.
The Black Parents Association continues to withhold an endorsement of Davis, just as it did when he was named a year ago.
The chairman of the group, Rev. Hugh Harmon, said district leaders continue to be dismissive of the organization, which Richland 2 administrators, he said, view as “troublemakers.”
“I think that it would be hard to do to win our endorsement,” Harmon said of the new superintendent. “We’re endorsing parents and kids. You’ll never hear me say he’s doing an awesome job ... or he’s doing a bad job.”
One of the group’s complaints is the lack of transparency in the way the school board selected Davis. Board members announced the selection of Davis without considering a search and did not say if other candidates were discussed.
Legal experts said it’s legal to move without public involvement if a search does not go outside the district.
Board member James Manning said at the time that Davis quickly “rose to the top” once the board decided it wanted to make its choice internally.
Still, that tainted Davis, Harmon and others say, although Harmon agrees that might be unfair to the new superintendent.
Harmon dismissed as “window dressing” that Davis is black and that the board has more African-American members than Caucasians.
“We were accused (of wanting) a black superintendent, black board members, black administrators,” Harmon said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The organization, he said, is the voice of parents who are frustrated that they can’t steer the district toward their concerns about services for special needs students, school discipline and other issues.
Among the sorest points has been the Black Parents’ contention that African-American students were being suspended or expelled disproportionately.
The district revisited its practices and during the past three school years, suspensions are down by 879 and expulsions dropped by 52, according to Richland 2 figures. That occurred as the number of students grew by 981, the district said.
Leevy Johnson, the friend of Davis since boyhood, calls the association’s lack of support for the district’s first black superintendent “treasonous.”
“All parents move their children or stay in District 2 because the schools are so great,” Leevy Johnson said.
“They want the best education for their children. That’s not a black or white issue.”
The life of Baron Davis
Milestones in the life of Richland District 2’s new superintendent.
Born: Dec. 20, 1971. That means he gets birthday and Christmas gifts together.
Raised: Largely in Allen Benedict Court, one of Columbia’s public housing complexes, by his grandmother
Education: Graduate of C.A. Johnson High School, 1990. Francis Marion University, 1995. University of South Carolina, master’s degrees in 1999 and 2003. Ph.D. from USC, 2008
Work history: With Richland 2 for 13 years. He also worked in Richland 1 and Orangeburg 4.
Family: Married to Pamela Davis. They have three daughters who attend Richland 2 schools. He is the eldest of four siblings.
Richland 2, as other school districts, faces challenges. Here are some key ones.
▪ Adjusting to more students who come from many backgrounds
▪ Attracting and keeping good teachers
▪ Wrestling with competing demands from parents, including the Black Parents Association
▪ Navigating financial strains as public education dollars shrink