Making The Grade

With more than 75,000 students and close to 100 schools, the Greenville County School District is the largest in the state. Dr. W. Burke Royster, who has been superintendent of the district since 2012, navigates the challenges and opportunities inherent to such a large district by finding a balance among students, administration, and the greater Greenville community. “Dr. Royster does an excellent job of creating educational experiences for all students,” says Tobi Kinsell, director of OnTrack Greenville, an initiative designed to support students and keep them moving toward graduation. “That includes meeting the needs of the most under-resourced students while also creating opportunities for the most-resourced. But I think the hallmark of his tenure as superintendent has been opening up the district to partnerships.”

Here, Dr. Royster shares his views on the future.

What drew you to a career in education?

There were many reasons I was drawn to education. My parents were educators. I was influenced by many outstanding educators and was raised to recognize the value of education to individuals and society as a whole. The primary factor that drew me to education was the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world, along with the belief that I could be one of those educators who leaves a lasting, positive influence on students, colleagues, and communities.

What are the unique challenges that come with supervising the largest school district in the state?

The most unique challenge in operating Greenville County Schools is not found in our size, but in our mission. We are one of the largest employers in the county, and the operations side of our business must follow sound principles and practice efficiencies like any other business. What makes us unique is that we have this whole other side of our organization that deals with producing quality graduates. Our “product” is influenced by countless factors such as home life, personality, family dynamics, cognitive ability, and early experiences, many of which are beyond our control.”

The Greenville County school system serves a diverse mix of students. How does that diversity affect the school system and your strategy?

Diversity is our greatest strength and greatest challenge. We operate at our peak and better serve our constituents when we consider diverse views, opinions, and backgrounds. On the flip side, providing instruction in a manner that meets the diverse needs, abilities, learning styles, personalities, and interests of each individual student is what makes our jobs difficult.

What are some of the ways the Greenville County Schools are working to keep students engaged and on track to graduate?

Retaining students and keeping them focused on learning has been a priority for the last six years, and that effort has paid off with the highest graduation rate (87.3 percent) in the history of our district. Engagement is key because students have to be interested in order to retain understanding and build foundations for more difficult concepts. Our students interact with technology every day, so we are delivering more instruction through digital formats and assessing student learning via videos, electronic presentations, and other technology-based systems. We are also using push notifications, social media, and the Internet to both share and collect information, and are working hard to make sure students learn how to discern valid, vetted, quality information on the World Wide Web. Within classrooms, we are increasing student collaboration and peer accountability, and focusing on project-based learning that ties standards to real-world problems and solutions.

"For over a decade, Greenville County Schools and the community have been influenced by Superintendent Dr. Burke Royster’s leadership. His vision and strategy for education to serve the nearly 77,000 students across Greenville County is exhibited in the programs that have been developed and made available to the community. His skill set is an attribute and needed in a time of Greenville’s growth, shifts in technology, and demands of the business community."
Dan Adams, president and CEO, The Capital Corporation

How important are partnerships to the success of the school system?

Essential. We are professional educators, but we do not have the resources or the expertise to meet all the needs of our students without help. In GCS, we have partners who provide work-based learning opportunities, mentors, tutors, real-world experiences, and donations.

How do you engage the public in your work?

From an academic perspective, parents need to read to their students and be seen reading. Help with homework, but don’t do it for your children. It is much more important that students have an authentic experience completing problems or creating presentations than that those tasks look or be perfect. Talk to students about your own experiences in school and talk positively about learning. Don’t always give them the answer; instead ask probing questions to help them find the solution. Build a positive relationship with your child’s teachers and administrators, and it is more likely your child will, too.

What are you the most proud of?

I am most proud when a former student or colleague takes the time to tell me about something I said or did that made a positive difference in their life.