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'Embracing a Spirit of Gratitude'

As we set our eyes on the holidays and the new year with a spirit of giving and rejuvenation, it is important that we first pause to express our gratitude. We have much to be thankful for in Aiken County, both as a community and as an organization in the Aiken County Public School District. 

I have had the pleasure of being a part of this amazing school district for almost twenty-two years. I have been a school leader, a district leader, and most importantly, a parent of two Aiken County students. Our dedicated employees fill my heart with gratitude throughout the year. They bring their passion and talent to classrooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums, school buses, hallways, and playing fields across Aiken County each day.

November is Youth Homeless Awareness Month. Last year, 424 Aiken County students were identified as homeless. We are on track to exceed that number this year. Our Lead Student Service Worker, Sherida Stroman, and her committed team access every possible resource to meet the needs of this population. These professionals are on the front lines helping families battle hardships so their children have the opportunity to focus on learning, and I know that I join anyone who has relied on their services in thankfulness for them.

November is also a month in which we honor our military families. I am thankful Aiken County has taken the lead in South Carolina in breaking down barriers and ensuring that transitions are as painless as possible for military children. As the state’s very first Purple Star School District, we now have a dedicated Military Community Liaison, Sondra Thomas, who serves as a reliable point of contact for families both entering and leaving our communities.

I am thankful our schools are gathering places for community volunteers. Charles Reyes supports our students and faculty at the Aiken County Career and Technology Center with his time and expertise, while leaders from every segment of our community volunteered recently to walk in the shoes of building principals during our annual Principal for a Day event. Retired educators are also tremendous advocates for our students and teachers, as they continue to serve our community in so many ways through programs like Baby’s First Teacher and after-school tutoring.

I am thankful for student leaders who model character and excellence through performance and service. Aiken High School’s Rachel Larson, Midland Valley High School’s Harper Puckett and Anna Scott, South Aiken High School’s Jesse Sanders, and Wagener-Salley High School’s Julian Starnes, were named recently as 2019 Wendy’s High School Heisman School Winners. North Augusta High School’s Hannah Waterman is serving as one of our first Student 2 Student peer support ambassadors helping military students adjust in their new schools, and Leavelle McCampbell Middle School student Gracey Chafin is bringing smiles to hundreds of hospitalized children and their families through her nonprofit organization, Lil G’s Wagons of Hope. These students demonstrate that school means so much more than striving for individual achievements, and that service to others is a critical element of personal success.

Our teachers and educators show up every day to make a difference as well. I am thankful for teachers like Warrenville Elementary School kindergarten teacher Latoya McGriff, who refuse to let any adversity stand in the way of their creativity and doing what they love – educating and modeling a will to succeed for our students. Educators like K-5 Social Studies Curriculum Interventionist Daniel Parent, who use their expertise and passion to fuel innovative learning strategies and techniques, by introducing elementary students to significant historical events through Virtual Reality (VR) technology.

We talk a lot about being ONE TEAM in Aiken County, but what does it mean? It means recognizing that while our schools alone can and do make a difference, a school system and a community that are united can make a greater and longer-lasting difference, not only in the lives of our students, but on the community as a whole. I am thankful for the scores of parents and community members who invest their time serving our schools. They serve on advisory councils and strategic planning committees, on PTOs and booster clubs, as foster grandparents, as AIKEN WORKS career mentors, as chaperones, room parents, coaches, and in a host of ways most of us would not imagine. The success of our students cannot be realized without them.

While it is not possible in this format for me to recognize every group and individual for whom I am thankful, the individuals mentioned here personify the level of commitment and dedication shared by many people and groups whose paths I cross. They all exemplify excellence in service to our community, our schools, and our families.

I wish everyone the very best experience Thanksgiving Day has to offer. May the new memories you create this season remind you of the blessings we enjoy throughout the year. On behalf of our Aiken County Public Schools family – be safe, be blessed, and be thankful.