CONWAY — Erick Malpica had a few problems dealing with his teachers, which came to a head when one of them ripped up his work. The middle-schooler didn’t react well to the action and could have been expelled but instead was sent to the Horry County Education Center, better known as the alternative school, where he appreciates having a second chance.
“At my base school, I couldn’t talk to anyone,” said Erick, 14, “but Mr. McLaurin helped me understand my situation. I’m going to try to work with the teachers when I go back [to my base school], even if they’re rough on me.”
Erick is like many students who have passed through the school’s doors and felt the influence of Principal Kenneth McLaurin. With his laidback style and soothing voice, he has brought calm and caring – along with high expectations – to the mainly middle and high school students assigned there for serious or repetitive behavioral issues. McLaurin has led the school and been its biggest cheerleader for the last 10 years, but retirement calls, and he’ll leave his post – and a committed staff – in the hands of a new leader at the end of the month.
Walking through the halls during the last weeks of school, McLaurin was a pied piper of sorts, with students flocking to him, eager for his attention. He didn’t disappoint, never failing to stop and chat, or to offer encouragement.
“It’s relationship building. I say good morning to every kid, and I know them by name,” said McLaurin, who greeted students each morning as they arrived for class at 6:30 a.m. “We really want the focus of the program to be about service to the kids. We don’t have a magic wand, but we help them to manage their behavior. These kids need someone who doesn’t pay lip service to caring about them. I can still see the good in them.”
The mission of the alternative school is to improve the students’ academics, attendance and behavior, as well as their interpersonal and decision-making skills, so they can successfully return to their base school. McLaurin said a lot of bad behavior stems from needs that haven’t been met, and that caring and trust helps get to the root of problems.
“We say, ‘Tell us what you need,’ ” McLaurin said. “As you work with the kids, the needs will surface. As you work with the kids, you see some of the struggles their parents are having. Sometimes, it’s, ‘I don’t have a place to live.’ If they have a need, somebody in this building will address it.”
‘Solid as a rock’
McLaurin operates with an easy manner and speaks protectively about his “boys and girls,” but he runs a tight ship.
“You can’t let that calm exterior fool you,” said Horry County Schools Superintendent Cindy Elsberry. “He’s solid as a rock. He wants them to succeed, but if they do wrong, there are consequences.”
All school districts in South Carolina have an alternative school. Most target students with discipline issues, although a few districts have them for students based solely on academic issues, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
Classes begin early – 6:30 a.m. – at Horry’s alternative school, and the last bell rings at 1:10 p.m. Students must follow a dress code of navy polo shirts and blue khakis, with no sagging pants, sandals or hats allowed. The school is small, with 150 to 200 students at any given time, but the numbers fluctuate with the varying lengths of each student’s stay.
Students are incentivized for good behavior through a point system with three levels – gold, silver and white. According to school data, only four of 149 active students in the third quarter still had white-card status, and more points means more privileges, whether it’s the use of a vending machine during break or a special cookout or party.
McLaurin said many of the students work hard to get back to their base schools, and that he ties his success to theirs. Some have asked and been allowed to remain at the school, finding comfort in the smaller setting. Fighting is almost nonexistent – “maybe two or three fights a year, and that’s with kids in conflict” – and recidivism is very low, McLaurin said.
“I really didn’t want to come here at first because of the rumors I’d heard about fighting,” Erick said, “but it’s not like that. It’s strict, but in a good way.”
‘Your principal,’ 24/7
McLaurin has spent 46 years serving students – his first 30 in North Carolina, then six at Loris Middle School – and said he always has found it exciting as an educator to work with kids, parents and the community.
As principal at Laney High School in Wilmington, he saw the potential early on in a young Michael Jordan, both in the classroom and on the court, and laughs when people mention a resemblance between the two.
“He was a great student, superior academically … he was just a great kid,” McLaurin said of the sports legend. “I knew he was good [at basketball], but I didn’t know how high he was going to fly.”
As special as Jordan turned out to be, McLaurin sees the potential in every student and said he is surrounded by staff and community members who mentor the kids and share his outlook.
The Sons of Allen men’s group of the AME church has been instrumental at the school, McLaurin said. He also has a small cadre of substitute teachers, like retiree Sam Lane, who can be trusted to fill in at a moment’s notice.
“It’s rewarding, and I look forward to being here,” Lane said. “It’s a matter of understanding the kids and encouraging them. People should give it a try.”
Staff members are equally enthusiastic about working at the school but admit the setting isn’t ideal for everyone.
“It’s not the best fit for every teacher, but we are here because we want to be here,” said teacher Lillian C. Stanley, who joined the school when it opened 13 years ago and also is retiring after 34 years in secondary education. “Contrary to what some people think, we don’t have a lot of drama, but I do whatever I can do for them. I have seen how I have made a difference, and I’ll still be around if they need me.”
Conswella Mitchell, lead counselor for rehabilitative health services, said not every story is a success story, but they have seen great successes because of how the staff comes together and provides the needed support, a sense of unity that starts with McLaurin.
“I’m your principal seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he says to students and encourages input from family members, especially when events away from school threaten a student’s progress. He even plays the ultimate Santa Claus every year, hosting a school Christmas party at his home and footing the bill with money he saves throughout the year.
“I’ve never had a boss like him,” said Luke Sharp, coordinator for Apex digital learning, who said the school is like a family, and McLaurin leads it with love. “He serves and leads by example.”
“He leads with his heart,” added guidance counselor Peggy Fields. “I tell students, ‘All you have to do is ask for help, and you’ll get it.’ ”
Most importantly, Mitchell said the students genuinely believe he cares for them.
“He will leave a legacy that will carry on behind him,” she said, “and he has instilled that in us.”
‘These are my children’
McLaurin doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels once he retires. A self-described “junk man,” he said he loves antiques, estate sales and auctions but needs more focus with what he collects. He also wants to learn to fish and would love to take a Master Gardener course.
“I could stay in the yard forever,” he said. “The dirt pulls the tiredness out of me.”
When thinking of the future, however, he also thinks about the future of his school, which is located in a former elementary school surrounded by portable classrooms. He said he would love for the school to grow into a program that is not just punitive but that also offers more services and opportunities for kids in the district.
“This building has enjoyed – and I wouldn’t say it if it were not true – tremendous support from Dr. Elsberry,” said McLaurin of the superintendent, who shares his hope for expansion, although she said there are no imminent plans to move in that direction.
“The budget is tight right now, but I would love for us to move in that direction at some point,” said Elsberry, who said school officials have visited some alternative programs she would like eventually to emulate in the district.
Such programs serve students with a variety of obstacles that keep them from school, such as parenthood, the need to work or to care for their family, and Elsberry said any programmatic change would have to be approved and supported by the school board.
Whenever change comes, McLaurin doesn’t plan to be too far away and hopefully can see his dream come to pass.
“I plan to make myself available,” said McLaurin, who said his mentoring won’t end with his retirement. “I love these kids. These are my children. I never stop being their principal.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.