Aiken County's school system covers plenty of acreage, and Sal Minolfo is familiar with a substantial portion of it, having served in a variety of roles over the past 20-plus years, en route to his current status as the Aiken County Principal of the Year.
The 1990 Silver Bluff High School graduate, who lives in Aiken, is now based at Belvedere Elementary School, having stepped into that role at the start of the 2016-17 school year. He reached the quarter-century mark as an educator, starting his classroom journey by way of Jackson Elementary and Jackson Middle. He completed high school in three years.
The heart of Aiken, he confirmed, is among his favorite haunts, as are two of the South's most popular tourist destinations.
"I definitely enjoy downtown Aiken — all of the things that they offer downtown, with live entertainment on Thursdays and some weekends, and a good meal — and I certainly enjoy hanging out with friends and doing those kinds of things."
He added, "I take a trip annually with my daughters to New Orleans, which is a favorite for us. My two oldest girls ... are both students at the College of Charleston, so I go visit them usually once a month or so."
Comprising that duo are Olivia, preparing for her senior year; and Elena, preparing for life as a sophomore. The youngest of the Minolfo ladies is Isabella, heading into her junior year at South Aiken High.
The father of the house also has roles as a member of NewSpring Church, in Aiken, where he is a greeter and a home-group leader. "It's a satellite from a church that started in Anderson, South Carolina," he said.
Aiken resident Brad Hyman, one of Minolfo's neighbors from church, said Minolfo has outstanding communication and leadership skills. "He has an ability to have very difficult conversations and try to stay as objective as possible without letting emotions take over, and in my experience, that's very rare."
Hyman, who works as a buyer for Savannah River Remediation, largely knows Minolfo through their partnership as leaders in a home group at NewSpring. "We have had a number of difficult conversations in and around these groups ... He can stay objective and address the issues at hand without letting emotion just get the better of him. His insights, when it comes to those discussions, are just so helpful."
He said Minolfo, in particular, excels at applying the biblical principal of "truth in grace."
Becky Carrier, the Aiken County school district's bookkeeper for federal programs, described Minolfo as a godly man with a good personality and a strong sense of humor.
Recalling her years of interaction with him when both were based at Redcliffe, she added, "He is a hard worker, and ... I always saw that he really loved the kids. He really cared about each and every one of them, to ensure that they would learn."
His background, following graduation from USCA Aiken in 1994, also includes teaching at Leavelle McCampbell Middle (five years), followed by administration service at Redcliffe Elementary (six years as assistant principal and four as principal), various roles in the district office (with emphasis on special education), another year of teaching at Leavelle, a year as principal at Blenheim Elementary/Middle, in Marlboro County, and a year of teaching at Aiken Middle.
His right-hand woman at Belvedere Elementary is Kimmerie Allen, the assistant principal.
Minolfo confirmed he is enthusiastically awaiting Belvedere Elementary's renovation, meaning a fresh face and a variety of new features to a structure that dates back to 1954. "It's going to dramatically change the school," he said.
Additions will include a second story and "about 20 classrooms, so I'm super-excited about it," he said. "It's going to be nice – definitely something that the community will be very proud of and be invested in."
Among Minolfo's longtime acquaintances is Columbia resident Tammie Newman, the South Carolina High School League's director of communications and public relations. Newman, referring to his recognition as an outstanding principal, wrote that the prize "could not have been awarded to a nicer guy."
She added, "Sal has always had a heart for children and a passion for education. Aiken County is fortunate to have yet another ‘home grown’ educator and leader within the schools ... I’ve known Sal since we were teens at Silver Bluff High; never a doubt he would make make a positive impact on K-12 academics."
"He's very dedicated," said Aiken resident Cheryl Henderson, a retired kindergarten teacher who knew Minolfo from his days at Redcliffe Elementary.
"He's sincere, and he knows ... how to pull the best out of somebody, and he's a lot of fun."
Henderson, who also taught some of the Minolfo children at Redcliffe, added, "He's wonderful, and I enjoyed working for him."
Belvedere Elementary teacher Heather Shuler, whose 25 years of experience as a teacher include 23 at Belvedere, also joined the conversation, crediting Minolfo with outstanding communication skills and the ability to help his teachers assess their situations, reflect on them and work their way through challenges.
"That's very good, because then you feel a part of the solution yourself," said Shuler, whose background includes first- and second-grade leadership.
"He looks at all of the kids and he works very hard so that every single child is included as much as possible, which is very important," added Shuler, recalling some of her experiences as the mother of a special-needs student.
Classrooms loom exceptionally large in Minolfo's family. His sister and brother-in-law, Trina and Richard Terlizzi, teach at Kennedy Middle (with 20-plus years of experience) and USC Aiken, respectively.
The principal's brother, Danny, is a co-owner of Lionel Smith Ltd., and is married to Jennifer, who teaches at Aiken Elementary.
It all amounts to a "community of educators," the principal recalled, pointing out his mom, Andrea, is a retired teacher, and his dad, Dominck, is a retired mechanic.
"Not too shabby for a first-generation Italian family," the principal noted. "He was born and raised in Sicily. He moved here in 1964 or something like that. I know he and Mom got married in '69."
A half-century later, the couple's oldest son was honored for being at the top of his profession — an affirmation that the things he and his faculty and staff have been doing are working, in the words of an Aiken Standard story announcing the accolade.
“We're moving kids forward. We're helping teachers grow as leaders and as professionals,” he said, after the ceremony, as quoted in the original story.
“It really is not because of what I've done. It really is because of what these other folks have done with me to achieve where we are,” he said. “It's a great honor and affirmation, but I feel these other people should get awards for what they've done to get me to this point. It's not about me.”
"One of the best things is, he helped me understand that building relationships with the students is what leads to success in academics," said Redcliffe Elementary fourth-grade teacher Erica Millwood, who knows Minolfo from his time at Redcliffe. She now has 12 years of teaching experience.
"As a teacher, personally, he helped me learn how to analyze students' data to drive my instruction."
Millbrook Elementary School's principal, John Metts, is among Minolfo's longtime friends. Metts commented, "I think he spends a lot of time getting to know his staff and talking to them and having an open-door policy. I think that really helps him a lot, in terms of keeping the morale up at the school, and makes everybody be part of the 'team' mentality."
Metts credited Minolfo as "an all-around good guy" with a keen interest in serving as a mentor for other principals and making a mark on the school system and education as a whole.
Becky Koelker, who retired in 2018 after a 33-year education career spent mostly in Aiken County, is also among Minolfo's neighbors and was also among his classmates, having studied administration with him at USC Aiken, en route to their roles as principals.
"He's a people person. He likes people, and I would consider him a lifelong learner. He likes to learn, and he learns from his teachers and others. He's an educator, not an administrator," Koelker said. "He has a really strong faith, and I think that comes through in a lot of what he does."
Minolfo, who lives in Aiken's Parkway South neighborhood, offered some thoughts on his profession and on work in general, including the recommendation for people to "find something that you're really passionate about."
He added, "Figure out what it is that makes you want to get up in the morning and work hard, so that at the end of the day, you may be tired, but you know that you made a difference in people's lives. That's the heart of what I do as an educator, and what we do as educators — those of us in the profession."
Minolfo's fine-tuning has come largely by way of the University of South Carolina system, as his degrees include a bachelor's from USC Aiken (1994), in elementary education; and (both from USC, in Columbia) a masters and a doctorate, both in educational leadership (1998 and 2010).
Reflecting on motivation, he said, "You have to have something that's going to motivate you and push you ... It's going to be a passion, and it's going to make you do what you do. I know we're making a difference in kids' lives."
North Augusta resident Jason Fulmer, one of Minolfo's longtime classroom compatriots, expressed a similar idea, describing the principal as "passionate and dedicated to really providing high-quliaty support for the educators around him, and ... dedicated to putting kids first."
Fulmer is extremely familiar with the subject matter, as he is a former South Carolina teacher of the year, on the basis on his service at Redcliffe Elementary, where he started as a teacher at the same time (1999-2000) as Minolfo was getting on board as assistant principal. Fulmer is now on board with the New Teacher Center, a California-based nonprofit organization "dedicated to improving student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders," as described in promotional material.
Among those who have known the award-winning principal the longest is Danny Minolfo, his brother, who also offered some insight. "My brother Sal has always been the kind of person who sets his mind to something and wouldn’t stop until he accomplished it," he wrote.
"I remember one Thursday night when he was in high school, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw him practicing his drum major routine for the game the next day. He had it down pat but Sal had to make sure it was perfect."
He added, "Quite often, people come up to me to share how much they appreciate Sal as their principal and associate. They say how supportive he is in the way he protects and advocates for his teachers and has the students' best interest in mind."