Stories

“Graduation rates at St. Johns are the second-lowest in the state.” | U.S.

St. John’s High School, a Title 1 school on a lone island located in South Carolina (a title 1 school is a public school for students with difficulty in academics). As a teacher who undertakes multiple tasks in the school, what did Samuel choose to do with a bunch of students who don’t even care about academics?

Video recording by Samuel Duncan

I am Sam Duncan, the Director of Student Activities, Spanish Teacher, Girls Basketball and Softball Coach at St. John’s High School in Johns Island, South Carolina. We are a small Title I High School in a rural community, consisting of about 325 students, 28 teachers, and 3 administrators. The student body is 75% African American, 20% Hispanic, and 5% white or other ethnicity.

The Island of Johns Island is both literal and metaphorical. It is literally an island on the coast of South Carolina made up mostly of farmland. Metaphorically because the culture of Johns Island has been isolated for generations and education has never been a priority. Graduation rates at St. Johns are the second lowest in the state, and many students are merely waiting for the day they turn seventeen so they can drop out.

I have many roles at St. John’s. At a small school such as ours, teachers must be flexible and creative, especially when resources are slim. However, working in many different facets of a High School students overall education has a huge advantage. It allows us to build culture by building relationships and modeling positive behaviors in different settings. 

In order to change the perception that education is not important, a teacher must find what students are interested in and make it relevant to education. As a coach, I have held my students to a higher academic standard than the District requirement because I believe in high expectations. We forfeited our first three games this season because I didn’t have five student-athletes who met the terms of the grade requirement. Athletics on Johns Island are extremely important, and the community was outraged to hear of our forfeitures. However, once they discovered the reason for our forfeitures, a shift in student engagement occurred. Student-athletes in every sport, not just girls basketball, started performing better academically because they realized what was at stake. A high expectation had been set and agreed to, and when it was not met, the consequences were enforced.

This is my overarching mission at St. John’s. I hope to motivate students by showing them that academics are important, and the enjoyable things at life can only be achieved by getting educated. I try and show them that being educated leads to opportunities by planning and securing funding for field trips. Last year I led a group of 14 of our Islanders to Costa Rica for ten days. Most of the students had never left South Carolina, yet they were able to raise most of the funds for this trip themselves, and I couldn’t have been prouder of the way they handled themselves.

I also motivate students by creating leadership opportunities for them such as the Ambassador Program. This program pairs our bilingual students with non-English speaking elementary students. Every day they push into the elementary school classrooms and offer support to students learning English as a second language. The program has been a huge success and not only benefits the elementary students, but empowers and offers authentic, education work experience for the High School students.

Building culture, motivating students, and providing leadership opportunities are the cornerstones of my ethos as an educator. I have used them effectively at St. Johns, and would love the opportunity to share my passions on a grander scale.

Thank you very much.

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