MARION, S.C. – Marion County School District Superintendent Dr. Kandace Bethea has guided local schools through two hurricanes and a global pandemic in her five years of service. Despite the challenges, she remains confident in the measures taken by teachers and staff to navigate through adversity and she envisions an ambitious path forward educating students.
“I think that we’ve had under the circumstances a very smooth start to the year,” Bethea said.
Implementing a new mask mandate is just one of the many mitigation factors used as the district returned to in-class instruction.
“Of course we know across the state has been the spiraling conversation about the masks,” she said. “But I will say that we were very fortunate in Marion County that around 90 percent of our students wore masks without the mandate.”
Bethea said the feedback has been positive.
“As a school district we have to use every mitigation factor that is available to us,” she said. “I think that we have a responsibility.”
Bethea said she is aware a lot of safety protocols and practices will remain.
Marion County became a consolidate district in 2012 and the process continues to evolve for more than 4,000 students. There are several new initiatives with Bethea at the helm.
Four year old students were consolidated into pre-kindergarten program housed at the Academy of Early Learning (AEL) in Mullins. In an effort to decrease the achievement gap, classes included an expanded Montessori program.
The district launched phase one of a reconfiguration plan that resulted in the closing of Brittons Neck Elementary school and rezoning Creek Bridge High School students to Mullins High School in 2020.
Creek Bridge STEM Academy is now a facility that’s home to elementary and middle school focused on a STEM curriculum.
Bethea said Brittons Neck, Rains and Centenary communities were initially concerned but believes the site has been tremendous for children in the area.
“Since my tenure I know I’ve made some fairly bold moves and decisions it terms of our programing,” Bethea said. “Those programs are successful and continue to be successful.”
Assessment results said 66 students in the district are taking dual enrollment courses. Eleven Marion County School District students recently graduated from the Marion County Early College program housed at Mullins High School, receiving both their high school diploma and an Associate of Arts degree from Florence Darlington Technical College.
“I just felt the need for our children to be able to earn those Associate of Arts degrees,” she said. “Our kids deserve the same opportunities and class experiences as surrounding communities.”
Bethea said the district wants to maintain the momentum and at some point organize an arts-based school in the district along with a Montessori school.
The wheels are now turning to the second phase of the reconfiguration plan approved by board members that envisions the planning and construction of a new state-of-the-art high school.
“We’re about to start engaging the community more on a conversation about a consolidated high school,” Bethea said. “I think I was very forthcoming with the community and talked about phase two. I didn’t know when it will happen and probably a lot further along had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic but at this time we started rekindling those conversations and now trying to move that forward in gaining public interest.”
Bethea was conducting listening sessions visiting homes before the pandemic.
“I was surprised by how overwhelming there was an interest and now we’re putting together a taskforce to get the pulse of the community and start trying to show the benefits of having a consolidated high school in this county,” she said. “The people will have to help. The district can’t do a consolidated high school on its own. It will have to have the help of the community and voters of Marion County.”
Bethea said the next steps will be showing the need and gathering information to present to the public.
“We’re doing a facilities study to see what our needs are and identify what facilities need to be repurposed,” she said. “It’s a goal of ours to move to phase two.”
Bethea said the monumental task is something her experienced has prepared her for.
“I think that with any decision is weighing out the benefits for children and that has to be the fuel you,” she said. “This decision is going to make an impact on children and something we to seriously take a look at. I just think there are many positive benefits for children.”
A catalyst of the conversation to help fund the potential project is a portion of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund). Marion County School District was allocated $2,581,151.
“Now we have an opportunity to possibly have funds allowed to go towards capital projects,” she said. In the meantime, district officials move forward with their strategic plan that includes priorities ranging from teaching and learning, retaining quality personnel, communicate with the community, equitable resource allocation and technology.
Bethea said retaining teachers is a major priority and recruiting is now a year-long process.
“Being able to attract and retain high quality staff is something we want,” she said. “We have to have the right people in classrooms and be able to support them when they come.”
Staff and parents play a role on the focus of academic performance, she said.
“I know that kids in Marion County can achieve,” Bethea said. “The potential is here.”
Data released by the South Carolina Department of Education in its annual school and district report cards shows that Marion County School District reached an 81.4 percent graduation rate in 2021 just below the state average of 83.3 percent.
The district’s graduation rate has trended upwards from 75.5 percent in 2018, 78.1 percent in 2019 but down from 88.7 percent in 2020.
The annual drop-out rate is down f to 2.1 from 2.6.
“It’s good for our children to see people from around here be successful,” she said. “Nothing takes the place of direct learning in a classroom interacting with that teacher. It shows a need to keep our kids in school.”