When Betty Bagley heard that McCormick County School District needed an interim superintendent, she knew it was where she needed to be.
Not long after Bagley retired as superintendent of Anderson County School District Five in 2013, she received the lifetime achievement award from the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA) for her more than 40 years in education in the state.
But she left that position knowing she wanted to do more for struggling schools.
“I’ve always said toward the end of my career that if there was a small, rural, poor district — it had to be all three — that could use my help, I would help,” Bagley said.
Before Anderson Five, Bagley was at Bamberg County School District One as director of special services and school psychologist before becoming the district’s superintendent.
Like McCormick, Bamberg County is one of the least populous counties in the state. Bamberg One’s 2017 state report card shows about 76 percent of the district’s students live in poverty.
The district shaped much of Bagley’s outlook on education.
One year when she was superintendent in the district, she convinced the board to buy sleek agendas with school logos for every student so they could easily keep track of assignments.
“This parent came up to me, tears streaming down her face, ‘Mrs. Betty, I am so proud,’ and she picked up her child’s agenda. I said, ‘I’m glad you like that,’ and she said, ‘No — this makes me feel like my child is as good as the child that goes to Irmo,’” Bagley said. “That struck me. When you’re in small, rural towns, what are parents thinking? I could almost cry about it — they’re so used to having to just take whatever, and then when something comes that looks shiny, that looks bright, (it’s like), ‘Finally, my child has what a child in Greenville has.’ And it shouldn’t be that way.”
When Bagley worked as director of special services and school psychologist at Richard Carroll Elementary School in Bamberg One, she saw a young Nikki Haley walk the halls every day.
“Can you imagine how proud (I was) when she became a governor twice, and now UN ambassador?” Bagley said. “You may be in a 70-year-old building, it may be painted blue, it may be made of fat lighter, furniture that’s been (there) for decades, but you never know what that child sitting in front of you, passing you in the hall, may become.”
Those experiences solidified something more than a belief in Bagley — a rally cry — that it shouldn’t matter where a child is born when it comes to educational opportunities.
“You’ve got to make sure that they are getting the same quality, the same high expectations, the same opportunities, because where you live, geography, should not hinder the dreams of a child,” Bagley said.
Beth Phibbs, executive director of SCASA, has worked with Bagley in years past and said she cares about her students.
“I have always known Betty to be a tireless worker and someone who always puts students first,” Phibbs said.
As Bagley takes the reins in McCormick, a district that’s had six acting superintendents in eight years and historically low scores on state tests, her agenda is simple — to make changes that will result in successful students.
In 2017, only 20 percent of students met the benchmark of “meets or exceeds expectations” in English on the SC Ready test, which is given to students in third through eighth grade. Only 18 percent met the benchmark scores in math, compared to a statewide average of 40 percent. An average of 47 percent of students passed the end-of-course exams at McCormick High School compared to a statewide average of 74 percent.
“That’s got to change. Let’s stop doing what we’ve always done, because it’s yielding this. So let’s be open-minded, let’s embrace what can be different, to yield different results,” Bagley said. “It’s a shift in how we teach, it’s a shift in expectations, it’s a shift in delivery and instruction, it’s a shift.”
Bagley told the district’s board members she would take a hard look at all of the programs. For the past four years, Bagley has served as a field director for TransformSC in the state Department of Education. In that role, she visited districts across the state to look at innovative ways teachers are getting students to learn.
Along with the programs, Bagley said she will also look at positions and roles in the district.
“I want the district office to be efficient. I want it to be service-oriented — that we’re there to serve the schools, we’re there to serve in the capacity that they need. In other words, the schools don’t work for us, we work for the schools,” Bagley said. “But we’ve got to make sure we have the right people in the right places so that when they have needs, they can be addressed.”
She also wants to address the district’s low teacher morale, which two teachers publicly brought up at the April board meeting and said they were treated as “disposable, replaceable seat-fillers.”
Her primary strategy is to bring them in and hear them out — she said she doesn’t want to simply tell teachers what to do.
“You sit and you talk with people, you hear what they have to say, and then you say, ‘What if...’ and you talk about possibilities,” Bagley said. “It’s a matter of teachers and administrators being a part of the conversation and together coming up with a solution.”