Nestled in Hardeeville, South Carolina, the classroom of Gregg Dixon of Royal Live Oaks Academy is filled with innovation, commitment, and an abundance of joy. Dixon is a native of the area and has pledged his life to drastically shifting the educational outcomes for all kids in Jasper County. He believes in excellence, equity, and most importantly—high expectations for his students. Some of you may remember that Dixon was named South Carolina Public Charter School District Teacher of the Year in 2013.
Gregg Dixon, Royal Live Oaks Academy
Gregg, why and for whom was Royal Live Oaks created?
RLOA created to give the citizens of Jasper County the parents and the students another educational option. The local school district has many success stories but there were many students that were struggling to succeed within that setting. The school was created for the parents and students but also for the teachers. While the students are an integral part of the school, the teachers really maintain the school on their shoulders and teachers want options as well. I was one of those teachers. I want to be a part of institution that allows for innovative ideas.
Tell me more about choosing the charter route and how that journey was for you.
I have always been familiar with charter schools or the term at least. I’d heard they were very innovative and the school operates more as its own district so it allows for us to be immediately responsive to the needs of our students and to the needs of the community. So whereas in a traditional local district, if you have an idea that’s not one of the prescribed ideas; you may tell your team leader and he or she tells the vice principal, and the vice principal tells the principal. Then it works its way up to the academic coach, the district, the chief of staff, and then the superintendent. And then in a month something might change. In a charter school that’s not the case because you’re able to make immediate changes and it allows for more innovation than the local district schools. You’re able to find find a solution to a problem maybe quicker than you ever would in a normal public district school. It’s allowed me to have more autonomy. I really appreciate the flexibility.
Why do you think Royal Live Oaks is such an important choice for Jasper County?
Well it’s a county that has long been impoverished and neglected. And we are surrounded by counties that are very similar. We have the counties that are more affluent but there are still pockets that are very similar to this county—long impoverished long neglected. And education is the key to breaking that up. We’ve had the district that have struggled as many students have struggled with in that district Some have succeeded some have not. Most parents have only one school choice or they’ll have to try to generate the revenue needed to send their children to private schools and some of them are not of high quality. So if the demand is there for better options then that is why this school needs to exist—it offers a choice. I argue we need more competition. I’m not afraid of competition. I think competition is good. People root for one team or the other when they meet on that football field. Both bring their fiercest competition. It usually makes people perform to the zenith. And I think it’s very important this law exists to give people a choice but also to bring competition because everyone is in academia to really educate students. So the competition should be who will educate them the best.
What initiatives are you taking in your classroom to make sure that your learning environment is accessible and equitable for all the kids that come in your class?
I really believe in personalized education. So the first way I’m very inclusive is through project based learning where I’m able to access and reach multiple aptitudes so I can be sure kids are reaching their mastery. When we’re learning in the classroom I’m flexible—some children may want to show mastery through an essay, a play, or a commercial. Whatever talent a student may have is encouraged to come to the forefront because you’re being inclusive of the ideas and you’re giving them a wide range of flexibility to demonstrate their mastery. When we grew up we all got the same test. We got the pen and paper assessment. I believe a mistake is only viable if a student can learn from their mistakes so I give constant feedback and that feedback is personalized to each student. I don’t give them a fish. But I teach them how to fish. Teach them strategies to catch fish. That happens with every student from my high fliers to my students who struggle. I have high expectations for all my students while realizing they will all have to take different avenues to reach those expectations. I hold them accountable as well for what they do.
What has been your greatest accomplishment here?
I’ve always felt the main issue is lack of exposure. In more affluent counties children are exposed to much more and their vocabulary is more advanced—they really have a wider repertoire of words. So I give my kids vocabulary words that are very advanced and I push them to use these words. I try to bring resources here that these kids may not be able to experience elsewhere—like a 3D printer. I want my kids to be able to compete with the more affluent kids in neighboring counties in academic scrimmages and bring home top prizes.
What do you think your greatest challenge has been?
My greatest challenge has been and continues to be trying to overcome what is sometimes referred to as the “Iceberg Effect”. The Iceberg Effect states that often, we desire the tip of the iceberg that includes high student test scores, high achieving schools, well behaved students. However, the bulk of an iceberg is submerged and often not visible. Whereas the focus is on the tip, the larger issues impacting the people the a school is composed of goes unnoticed. Serious issues such as generational poverty, lack of resources, a severe lack of support, extreme lack of discipline, jobs that pay a wage inadequate for daily needs to be attended to, lack of government support for families and professionals, and the like. I am beyond grateful and proud of the achievements my students and I have made within and beyond the classroom but physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, I am thoroughly exhausted and sometimes frustrated by the deficiencies that exist. Teachers are held accountable and by all means, we should be, however, the children did not begin with the teachers and therefore neither should accountability. There should be shared accountability along with shared support and partnership. It is a daily task not to yield to the fatigue I feel.
If someone was interested in teaching at RLOA, what advice would you give them?
I would tell them that our country and world needs more people like them, people who are willing to go and serve in an area of great need. I would say to them that they are among the most essential people in our society. Why do I say that? Well, I respect all educators whether they teach at a school that is working class to one that is affluent. However, it is no secret that the schools that struggle the most with hiring and retaining teachers and preventing high levels of attrition are schools such as Royal Live Oaks Academy. Students and the communities of these schools often have the least and need the most. However, when you see students from these schools, many who may struggle academically, make drastic improvements or sometimes far exceed the learning objectives set by the state, you can feel a special sense of pride and affection because you will know that unlike some other areas where students have resources and support available to help bolster their school experience, you had to work with very little to accomplish what you did with your students and that will serve as an ultimate reminder of you diligence and effectiveness.
Why do you think the school choice is important for the state of South Carolina?
Imagine if we did not have choice in our lives, we had to be attended to by this doctor who has a history of malpractice when we really desire to be attended to by the doctor who is more effective. We would have to eat at this restaurant when we feel the other restaurant is more to our liking. In every area of our lives, we have choice, we decide where we want to shop, eat, live (to some extent), work, and more. One setting may be more conducive to what we are trying to achieve than another. If our goal is to try and help every child succeed then we need to provide options for our children, some children may excel in one environment where others do not. There is a popular illustration, it includes a monkey, elephant, whale, and eagle. They are all asked to climb the tree and the one that can climb the tree passes the test. Obviously, that test would not be appropriate for any of those species with the exception of the monkey. The other species would not excel in that setting. It is incumbent on South Carolina to provide as many quality choices as they can so that all of our students with their varied, heterogeneous needs can be provided with as many opportunities to succeed as possible. Furthermore, competition usually results in everyone performing at their optimum level. None of us own these students and these other stakeholders, if we want their patronage, we should compete, be of high quality, and earn them.
If you had words of encouragement for your students what would it be?
I would tell my students not to let the negativity that seems to permeate the atmosphere around us, envelop them. Yes, this is a cold world but there are many dynamic, warm people in this cold world, be that warm, dynamic person. Yes, life is filled with disappointments but there are successes, even if they are very small and not necessarily noticed by others, celebrate those successes even if if means you may sometimes have to celebrate them alone. Yes, life is hard for most people if not everyone and it is a difficult, tedious journey but we have a long, long history of people who have helped smooth out some of the potholes and bumps we would have had to experience, be that person who helps make someone else’s journey easier. In other words, be the best you that you can possibly be and help this world be better than it is currently.