CONWAY — Judy Beard is not your mother’s principal.
The top administrator at Conway’s Whittemore Park Middle School doesn’t harken back to school leaders of the past but is always looking forward with passion and tenacity to get the best in education for her students, colleagues say.
“She is a new breed of principal,” said Cindy Ambrose, chief academic officer for Horry County Schools. “What principals did 15 to 20 years ago won’t cut it today. Now we have an accountability system, and the stakes are high. Judy’s just driven and relentlessly determined to improve.”
Beard has been pushing for excellence since she was a teacher and has refined her talents across the district at six different schools in the last 25 years. Teachers and district officials tout her enthusiasm for tackling a challenge and her ability to motivate people to invest in her vision. She is known for taking struggling schools and transforming them into state award winners and national grant recipients, which has raised her profile locally, as well as at the state and national levels.
“We have a ton of very competent teachers and administrators in our district or we wouldn’t have the results that we have had, but there’s always a bright star,” said Horry County school board Vice Chairman Neil James. “We have a number of them, and Judy is one of those stars.”
Beard was best-known for engineering a turnaround at Loris Middle School, which once sagged under low expectations but went on to win the state Palmetto’s Finest Schools Award. The school’s success attracted educators from across the country and thrust Beard into the national spotlight.
She was selected as one of three finalists for the 2013 MetLife/National Association of Secondary School Principals’ National Middle School Principal of the Year award and was feted in Washington, D.C., where she said she was able to talk with legislators and educators on shaping education policy.
The national attention only grew when Beard joined Whittemore Park. HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry said as soon as Beard knew she was making the move, “the wheels began to turn,” and she was set on applying for a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant.
Whittemore Park received one of the 65 grants awarded across the country - the only school in the state ever to do so – which is partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in three phases. The grant supports innovation through technology and gave Beard a head-start on reinvigorating her new school with digital devices, digital content, teacher training and personalized learning to meet each student’s needs.
The school’s innovation was behind its selection this year as one of six state schools to pilot the TransformSC program, which is aimed at redesigning public education. The program will allow the school over the next two years to try new approaches for learning and assessments to help develop policies and to change those that educators say can hinder student progress.
The school also is the first, along with Conway High School, to launch a community-driven initiative this year that is designed to strengthen the eight schools in the Conway attendance area and raise the graduation rate. Staff and students at the two schools are working with the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, an international program that emphasizes core values, student aspirations, leadership and responsibility at every grade level.
“I don’t think we really intended for it to be this way, but everything just really fell into place,” Beard said. “I want to make sure that whatever I do as principal, it puts kids first, not the adults in the building. Kids are priority one.”
That was clear to superintendent Elsberry, who came to the district while Beard was at Loris and heard of the school’s struggles and success. She recruited Beard to give Whittemore Park a fresh start and said the principal took the challenge of forming a new direction for the school.
“She’s a phenomenal leader who knows how to rally people behind a vision, develop the plan and implement it with precision,” Elsberry said. “Part of the vision for Whittemore Park is to try some practices that are out of the box. … She makes calculated risks, tries things and gives her teachers that ability to fail - and if that doesn’t work, to try something else. You have to have that confidence that you can make it happen, and Judy does.”
Beard said she never knows what will happen until she walks through the school’s doors, and her days are usually long, but she is quick to say that does not make her unique.
“I’m just one of many,” she said. “We have a lot of good people in this district.”
Inspired to teach
Beard, 60, has made many strides in education for someone who never intended to be a teacher, much less a principal.
She and husband John Beard are from Lewisburg, Tenn., where they graduated from the same high school. Beard went on to attend secretarial college, “because that’s what girls did back then,” she said, and had several jobs as an executive assistant – one for Florida’s public defender – while her husband attended graduate school at Florida State University.
“In high school, I was president of the Future Teachers of America club – why, I don’t know. It’s ironic that this is where I ended up,” Beard said. “I was trying to find my way.”
John Beard followed a job that took the couple to Alabama, where he inspired his wife to go back to school, said Beard, who graduated from Athens State College in Athens, Ala. She taught fifth grade for a year before she and her two children moved to the area with her husband, who joined Coastal Carolina University, where he is associate provost.
“I didn’t want to move - I was happy – but we fell in love with the people and the beauty and history of the area,” she said. “It was the best move we ever made.”
Taking a challenge
Beard was hired over the phone to teach in Horry County Schools and joined Loris Middle as a fifth-grade teacher in 1988 before becoming the Gifted and Talented program instructor for Lakewood, Myrtle Beach and Forestbrook elementary schools. She helped open the new Carolina Forest Elementary School in 1996 and navigate the area’s explosive growth, first as a fifth-grade teacher, then as assistant principal and principal.
“When I became principal, we had 21 portables outside and about 1,200 kids in record time,” Beard said. “They told us 60,000 homes were coming. … It’s amazing now to see the growth.”
Beard worked in the district office for a year before then-district superintendent Gerrita Postlewait called her in and asked her to consider moving to Loris Middle as principal for the 2005-06 school year.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about middle school,’ ” said Beard, who quickly learned to love those in-between years. “You get to see them grow developmentally. At first, they don’t have their identity, and there’s a big leap before they know who they are. They’ve got to have a strong middle school experience to see success in high school.”
When Beard walked into the Loris school, 80 percent of its students were from generational poverty, and most students weren’t reading at their grade level. Behavior also was a problem - more than 2,000 disciplinary referrals had been issued the prior year for infractions such as disrespect, refusal to obey and fighting, which occurred every day, she said.
The first years were difficult, said Beard, who spends a lot of time in and out of classrooms and studying data to pinpoint problems and progress. Her biggest challenge was rallying teachers and parents, as well as the community, to believe the school could succeed. She and her staff developed a five-year plan that focused on literacy, appropriate behavior and high expectations, and got technology into the hands of students – laptops for the sixth- and seventh-grade students.
“There were growing pains - deep change takes time,” said teacher Jean Burden, who was with Beard in Loris and is now at Whittemore Park. “There are dreamers and doers, and she’s both. I’ve never seen anyone with quite that marriage, and that’s what hooked me.”
Burden has been teaching for 34 years and said she could easily retire, but she hasn’t considered it because she sees the results of working with Beard.
“I’ve been at this a long time, and she makes me want to be a better teacher,” she said.
Not everyone shared the excitement of change, and Beard said she had some hard conversations with teachers who weren’t on board with the program and with parents, who had to reinforce new values at home. Loris saw real success after four years of Beard’s leadership when the school was a finalist for the Palmetto’s Finest Schools Award, which is given by the S.C. Association of School Administrators to schools for excellent instruction and outstanding leaders, along with strong family and community involvement.
“We were runner-up, but it was probably my biggest achievement when my teachers looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to do it again,’ ” Beard said. “[Getting the award] is a big commitment from the staff, and at that point, I knew we’d turned the corner.”
Beard didn’t hesitate to move to Whittemore Park in 2012, saying she felt she had done all she could at Loris, and there were others who were ready to move up at the school and carry on. James, who represents Loris and Conway on the school board, said it was bittersweet to see her go, but he knew she would hit the ground running in Conway.
“Judy is an outstanding individual, a quality person, and that overflows into everything she does,” said James, who was on the committee that tapped Beard for the Loris job. “I said then if she can walk the talk, then we have hit a home run, and she certainly did.”
A new path in education
The feeling at Whittemore Park is lighter these days, from the yellow paint that has opened up the halls, to the outlook of teachers, who say they have been given a voice and the opportunity to try new things.
“There is no competition between teachers but a lot of collaboration,” teacher Mary Beth Grainger said during a recent staff meeting.
The staff is very committed to each other, but they needed to trust that they could make suggestions, open up and take some risks, Beard said, and it helped when they saw an immediate improvement. In one year, the school has gone from a D to a B on its federal accountability grade, which measures improvement over each of the school’s subgroups.
Experimentation is high at the school, where there are no bells except to begin and end the day, and Beard said in another year, they’ll move toward changing class by subject. The school focuses on project-based learning, where students use digital devices to create work that reinforces their lessons, and uses as much digital content as possible, which Beard said must be rich, engaging and kid-interactive.
The school also is working out the kinks of a “digital dashboard” - a learning management system that streamlines access to digital programs with only one password and gives daily progress reports – and as part of the state’s pilot program, the staff will be working with new assessments and building curriculum as they go.
“We’ve got to get real world [with learning], and we just have to trust it’s going to happen,” said Beard, who seems to always be on the move, darting from one classroom to another, radio in hand so she is always reachable.
Bridgette Johnson, whose daughter, Emma, is in sixth grade this year, said she had heard little about Beard before school began, but at orientation, the principal eased her fears about middle school, telling parents what to look for and how to make the transition from elementary school. She said the school has other activities as well as academics, and Emma will be learning to play the violin in the new orchestra class.
“Every pilot program is exciting and scary at the same time, but she assured us that when our children leave, they will be equipped as far as technology for whatever high school has for them,” Johnson said. “I do believe that’s where we’re headed, and [Emma is] pretty excited about science. There are some teachers there that are already inspiring her.”
A principal has a very complex job, and it can be a lonely job where you can’t afford to stumble, Beard said, but she gets her energy from being around children.
She said she loves being at Whittemore Park because there are so many untapped resources, and the school’s various initiatives will keep her busy for the foreseeable future, but “Judy’s one who likes new challenges,” James said.
“My brain seeks novelty – I don’t like monotony,” said Beard, who said she has never worked with high school students and would like to, although it would take a year for her to be certified in that area.
“To see them graduate is what you want to see,” she said. “I’ve always wondered what that feels like to give a diploma.”
Whatever she ends up doing, now or down the road, educators say Beard will tackle it, as always, with passion.
“I think if Judy was playing croquet, she’d be passionate about croquet,” Elsberry said. “Judy doesn’t do anything halfway. It’s full speed ahead.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.