Alford Crossroads

Dr. Sean Alford, the superintendent of Aiken County Public Schools, talks with students waiting for class to start on the first day of school at the new Aiken Intermediate School for sixth graders only who live in the Aiken area.

On Sept. 5, after the dust had settled on Dr. Sean Alford’s inexplicable resignation from the Aiken County Public School District, I headed over to Dr. Alford’s Twitter page (@AlfordOnTheGo).

The page reads like a walk through the halls of Aiken County’s schools, chock-full of information and excellence that’s happening within the district.

As of Sept. 13, an ominous date, to be sure, Dr. Alford will no longer be the caretaker, watcher and retweeter of those halls. And the district will be so much worse for it.

By now, you’ve heard and/or read the story. Dr. Alford resigned after a three-hour special called Aiken County Board of Education meeting. His resignation was followed with two immediate resignations from board members, and another on Sept. 13 – the same date as Dr. Alford’s.

Speculation, and I emphasize speculation, has ranged from a threat against an employee to claims that the superintendent took “kickbacks” to marital problems.

I’m here for facts and researched opinions, not speculation.

Here are the facts – Dr. Alford’s tenure saw gains in not only student achievement, but tangible investments in education.

Last November, it was reported that nearly half of Aiken County’s public schools earned Excellent or Good ratings on the S.C. Department of Education’s report cards. The district also reported overall gains on test scores, specifically on the ACT, where the district consistently performed above the state standard.

The district didn’t only make present gains, but also had a vision of the future. That’s why designations such as Purple Star are important, because it shows a level of conscientiousness about what’s going on in the community and career opportunities.

Of course, very few people will find fault in catering to military families. However, when it comes to tackling issues of poverty, the despair and disparities in society are revealed.

When Dr. Alford and the school district initially presented their proposal for rezoning and restructuring select areas in the district, it was done to facilitate growth in certain communities and to balance demographic averages for free and reduced lunch students.

Let’s make the demographics piece more personal and more specific. We hear terms like “low-income” and automatically think less of people. That’s unfortunate and insensitive. It is insightful – and rare – to have a school system which understands that education can and should provide a level playing field for everyone.

If standardized testing –  simple retention of information – is the standard of excellence for a district, or for individual schools, it is grossly unfair to compare a child who’s well-fed and worry-free to a child who has to worry about about his or her next meal, much less where he or she will be staying the night.

Educational standards define excellence through grades, yet trivialize that those grades are directly affected by socioeconomic conditions. Along with an inadequate teaching of the history of oppression in this country, it is one of the great failings of our educational system.

This issue of class is, invariably, an issue of race. Here are some startling statistics from the 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, which is a data collecting function of the United States Census Bureau:

The white to black population in Aiken County is estimated to be about four to one – specifically, 115,355 white people to 39,841 black people. That ratio does not extend to those living below poverty level. According to the survey, 14,103 white people live below the poverty line, compared to 11,015 black people.

That’s a poverty rate of of 27.6% for black people living in Aiken County, versus 12.2% for white people living in Aiken County.

That disparity doesn’t just play itself out in our classrooms. It plays itself out in virtually all walks of life in our area.

I saluted Dr. Alford and Aiken County Public School District then and I salute them now for creating a plan that not only allowed for the district to grow, but also sought to improve demographics and the conditions they might create. That commitment to excellence ultimately cost Dr. Alford his job.

I could talk about the politics behind Dr. Alford’s resignation, which began with the turnover in last November’s election. Dr. Alford was aware of those politics, as well; he just fought and sought to unite the district. A local paper recently asked Dr. Alford what was the biggest challenge that the school district faced. His words:

“Our biggest challenge will probably be our continued constant striving for unity and synergy. We have focused over the past four going on five years now on oneness and not being five communities within the county. We are one team, and that’s been a struggle because there are a lot of historical, legislative and cultural influences that pull us toward being segmented, but I believe that people have seen the benefit of being unified and the synergy that we’ve gained from that particularly in the school district.”

He believed in people, even as some of those people worked against him and the district – and by extension, our kids. His and the district’s approach to “discipline” was more about student retention, with the understanding that students on the streets are more likely to be students who end up in prison. And still, those decisions on discipline weren’t micromanaged by the superintendent – he just became the face of them by virtue of his role within the system.

Dr. Alford dealt with these issues with grace and professionalism – with certainly more benevolence than was allowed him at Thursday’s board of education meeting. The remaining board members have an awesome responsibility in the midst of an inauspicious situation – maintain or exceed a level of excellence started by an award-winning superintendent. If they fail over the duration of their term, they too, should resign their positions.

There are many lessons in this disgraceful episode. First, sometimes great isn’t good enough. Also, all politics are local. The onus is on each and everyone of us to care about what’s going on in our schools — and not at the 11th hour.

It’s still #OneTeam, even if we are losing one of the star players. And make no mistake, Dr. Alford was a beacon for Aiken County’s schools.

Ken J. Makin is a product of Aiken County’s schools, from North Aiken Elementary, to Schofield Middle, to Aiken High. He’s a former reporter for the Aiken Standard and is the current host of the Makin’ A Difference show.