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12 months ago


Mrs. black's blog

We’re almost 5 weeks into the 2018-2019 school year at Laurens District 55 High School, and I just figured out where the faculty lounge is located. I’m new here - as an employee anyway. I was a student back in another century (seriously), but I still found myself lost among the pods my first few days back in the building. These days I’m a secretary here - assistant to senior principal, Lewis Compton. It’s all new to me again - I don’t know the students, and I don’t know the teachers. My office door opens into Commons. I have the lone “half door” in the building, so I have a unique location to view all of the “goings on” without anyone realizing I’m paying attention. As a member of the Laurens community, I imagine I’m a lot like you - wondering “what are they doing all day in that building?”. I have a child, but she’s only 4 - the only dirt I can get out of her is who is line leader for that particular day. So, I’m out to discover - who is here? what are they doing? There are 1600 students here and over 170 faculty and staff members - I’ve got a lot of names to learn and stories to hear - and like it or not, I’m taking you with me. So here we go, into the classrooms and into the hallways - let’s see what’s going on in here -

By Kathryn Black


12 months ago


I knew better, but I was shocked

School wasn’t even in session yet, but District Teacher of the Year Jimmy Huff made me cry. He spoke at the district wide opening session on August 15, and I found myself getting weepy at the back of the Lecture Theatre - here is a guy that loves what he does, and he loves the kids he teaches. And he’s entertaining. I think there were a lot of tissues out that morning as we were all reminded why we do what we do - we all play a part, no matter our official titles. Once classes got rolling, I decided to make a visit to Mr. Huff’s 2nd period Sociology class. I wanted to know - what does the District Teacher of the Year do in there anyway? Well, on the day of my particular visit, they were playing Pie Face - you know, the game with the whipped cream that smacks you in the face if you turn the handle too many times? It was part of a study session - they were going to have their first test the next day, and the second half of class consisted of a review. The class was divided into 2 teams - 2 students at at a time approached the podium for a Jeopardy style contest. First to buzz in and get the answer right? Gets to sit down. Too slow to buzz or gets the answer wrong? Well, you know where they were going - get out the whipped cream. 

Except that’s not what happened. 

First question and a girl gets the answer wrong. Another kid sitting on the sidelines calls out - “Hey - I got you. Don’t worry about it.” The girl that missed the question got to sit down, and her teammate took her spot in front of the pie. I leaned over to Mr. Huff to ask why they swapped. He commented that he doesn’t make the students play Pie Face - if they don’t want to do it, a teammate will step up and for lack of a better phrase - take one for the team. What struck me was that the girl didn’t even have to ask - her teammates knew -  the game wasn’t for her, and that was okay. The next thing I noticed - getting a question wrong wasn’t a humiliating experience. It wasn’t a big deal - no one booed anyone else or gave their teammate a hard time for missing an answer. These kids were respectful - not just to Mr. Huff, but to each other. They supported each other, and if someone fell, their teammates were there to pick them up. 

I was shocked. 

I probably shouldn’t have been - but even I am guilty of expecting the worst on occasion. When were they going to make fun of each other? When were they going to get loud and rowdy? When was someone going to get mad that their teammate missed an easy one? It never happened. And for the record, it was a tough review session. I didn’t know a single answer, and I took a Sociology class in college (it was 17 years ago, but still). I didn’t know any of the students in this class - from what I could see it was a diverse group full of different personalities with differing background experiences. But there they were - a unit - supporting each other. There were no winners or losers - just kids learning and having fun. Mr. Huff gets a lot of the credit - he’s created an environment where students feel safe and valued. Those kids love him, and it’s obvious - he’s a rockstar. The rest of the credit goes to those kids - they blew me away. There is more to this story, and we’ll get to that another day. Just know that at the end of class, all of the students stood up and gave each other high fives - both teams - all students. 

And you know what else? They all passed the test.  



By Kathryn Black


12 months ago



I used to live in New York City, and passing a celebrity on the street was a common occurrence. My path to work happened to cut right through a massive tourist bus stop right at the bottom of Central Park. Inevitably there were 3-4 buses and large groups of travelers huddled on the sidewalks every morning waiting for the adventure in front of them on that particular day. One day while navigating the sidewalks, I passed a lady jogging - right through the groups of tourists. I am certain no one in the groups of tourists paid any attention, because if they had, they would have realized that Academy Award Winner Hilary Swank was right in front of them. I stood there a little amazed - no one noticed? No one even looked up? You have to wonder how often that happens - how often we are in the middle of a moment and don’t even realize it. On October 1 I found myself wondering if our freshmen students realized who they were listening to in the Lecture Theatre.

For a bit of backstory - for the past 2 summers, the District Office has provided a book to all 5th and 8th grade students to read over the summer, and the book is theirs to keep. Librarians from all 9 schools meet together to sort through options and determine what books to select, and last year they decided on the book Refugee by Alan Gratz for the rising 9th grade students. Now, I am a history person, so I was pumped about this choice. He’s known for writing historical fiction, and this book actually follows the stories of 3 characters from 3 different times on their mission to escape from their home countries during crisis. We meet Josef - a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany, Isabel - a Cuban girl in 1994, and Mahmoud - a Syrian boy in 2015. I won’t be a spoiler, but this book is a page turner - definitely pick up to read if it crosses your path.

Anyway, once the book is selected - schools make a plan about how to discuss and review the book once school is back in session. At LDHS, Debbie Simpson, an instructional coach, took on the task of planning how classrooms were going to work the book into the curriculum during the first semester. On a whim, Mrs. Simpson decided to take a shot in the dark and contact the author to see if maybe, just maybe, he would be in the area and could swing by the small town of Laurens, SC and speak to our students. Lo and behold - yes! Of course he can come by! So, on Oct 1, Alan Gratz - a New York Times bestselling author - paid a visit to Laurens District 55 High School. And we’re not talking about just any bestselling author - the book Refugee has been holding at the 2nd spot on the NYT list for over 30 weeks (Wonder is #1 if you are curious). So, this guy? He’s a big deal, and Mrs. Simpson was able to convince him that our kids - in our small community - deserved the opportunity to hear what he had to say.

Me being me, I had to of course sneak in to one of the 4 sessions he hosted to see what all the fuss was about. I planned to stay for 10 minutes or so - get some pictures, etc - but I ended up staying the entire class period.

He was awesome - down to earth and funny. The freshmen students were engaged and they soaked up everything he had to say. He spoke about Refugee of course, but also several other books he’s written and also about his writing process. He got into how he outlines his books and how he researches. My favorite part was the end when students were given the opportunity to ask questions. I was a little intimidated - just knowing who he was, but oh no - they weren’t shy! And it was obvious by the questions they had - you knew they read the book. They asked about the characters, about the choices, about the reasoning behind certain things - they actually kept it up until the bell rang and hands were still in the air waiting for their turn.  Several students stayed behind to get their books signed and ask more questions. He was more than happy to stay and chat for a while with them - as long as he knew his requested lunch was waiting for him when he was done - a bag of Fritos and 2 cans of Coke.

I’m not sure if at 14 I would have fully appreciated the opportunity of having a conversation with a New York Times bestselling author - but I know I would love to have the memory. These kids seemed to get it though - they weren’t looking down when Hilary Swank ran by - they knew their opportunity and they enjoyed every minute of it. So, big thanks to Debbie Simpson and Alan Gratz for giving our students something they will always remember - a once in a lifetime experience.

By Kathryn Black


11 months ago


When the kids are smarter than you

I’m going to be honest with you - this post has been the toughest to write so far (and I realize I’ve only posted 2 others, but still). It’s been tough for no other reason than I’ve interviewed students that are significantly smarter than me, and I have NO idea what they were talking about. This whole crisis in confidence began one morning when I decided to make a visit to the “Early-Bird” Engineering Design and Development class. Before we get into specifics, let me give you some background on this particular class. Students enrolled in Engineering Design and Development meet every morning before school actually begins - hence the name Early-Bird. The course is taught by Rob Sheffield, who also teaches Physics and

Digital Electronics this semester at LDHS (2 more courses that are way over my head). The course is a part of Project Lead the Way which is a nonprofit organization that readies students to step into the role of an engineer and adopt a problem-solving mindset. The program’s courses engage students in real-world challenges that help them become better collaborators and thinkers. Students that participate in the course take part each year in the IT-oLoGY Innovation Challenge which is a state wide competition that challenges participants to solve a problem using technology. Each year there is a different focus, and for 2018 the requirement was to create a project that uses technology to solve a problem facing the environment in their school, community, or the state of South Carolina.

So, I decided to visit the Engineering Design and Development class one morning - maybe I would learn something.

When I arrived I learned that the course is divided into 3 groups - each group was responsible for coming up with an idea to present for the Innovation Challenge. Teams submitted their proposals in late September to be reviewed by a panel of judges. From that pool, selected teams are notified if they qualify to participate in the state wide competition, which will be held in Columbia on October 20. Of course, now I wanted to talk to the teams to see what they came up with -

This is where it gets complicated…

“Our project is a Sterling Hybrid Peltier Plate Engine. The engine works on a technology from the 1860s that uses gas like substances or refrigerants to power itself. When starting the project, one of the problems was that we needed a heat source and a  cooling source to make engine work properly. We decided to use Peltier Plates which have a have hot and cold side - they are used in most refrigerators. By using the Peltier Plates we can heat the gas making it expand which pushes down the pistons while also cooling the gas in the condenser for later use. One of the good things is that the gas released from the engine is less harmful than actual gasoline. Not much heat is needed in order for it to work, and there is no exhaust because the refrigerant is recycled as long as there is a battery. We got the idea from working on a patent project in a different course - one of us worked on the Sterling Engine and the other Peltier Plates, which sparked the idea to use the 2 together.”

Wait.. WHAT?? After hearing about Project 1, I turned to look at Mr. Sheffield - I’m pretty sure my facial expression read as “What did they just say to me??” Maybe it’s just me, but I have no recollection of studying anything about patents, engines, condensers or whatever else when I was in high school. Have kids always been this smart?

At this point I was intimidated and didn’t really want to ask the other groups about what they were doing, but of course now I was committed. I won’t give you the full detail version of all the projects, but this is the gist -

Project 2 - Lake Cleaning Duck - Idea based on the idea of a robotic pool cleaner, but to help keep lakes clean. They wanted to create something visually appealing, and ensure it was cost effective.

Project 3 - Reusable Lunch Tray (we use Styrofoam at LDHS) - Redesigning plastic lunch tray with electronic sensor code that allows students to check their trays in and out. Trays can be tracked so they can’t be stolen - students would be responsible for paying for trays that were lost or broken.

Now I had a headache…

So this is where we are now - all 3 LDHS teams were selected by the panel and qualified as state finalists for the IT-oLogy Innovation Challenge on October 20. Last year, only 5 teams from the entire state qualified (LDHS finished 2nd overall). Mr. Sheffield isn’t sure how many teams made the finals this year - we may be holding 3 out of the top 5 spots. Regardless, these kids, Mr. Sheffield, LDHS, and this community should be proud. As icing on the cake, Mr. Sheffield submitted a project of his own for the IT-oLogy Teacher Challenge and was also selected as a finalist.

Of course I will update this post with results on October 20. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that LDHS has offered a course in Engineering Design and Development (along with 5 other related courses) for 11 years, and I had NO idea. It definitely makes me wonder what else we have available at LDHS - rumor is there is also some sort of Robotics Team? Check back - I’ll let you know…

By Kathryn Black


10 months ago


Things you learn when singing happy birthday

So word is out now that Senior Principal Lewis Compton is on a mission to recognize all senior students on their birthday. There are over 350 seniors, so each day involves multiple classroom visits to present a card and, of course, sing Happy Birthday. On occasion, Mr. Compton will ask the birthday student what their post graduation plans include. On September 16, he received a surprising answer. It was Markeese Gray’s birthday - if you know him, you know he is a quiet guy. He is extremely polite - he’s the kid that comes to school, works hard and does what he’s supposed to do. Turns out he is also in the National Guard. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many high school students who have already taken the oath the serve our country before they even graduate. When he responded about his post graduation plans, it took us by surprise. He hadn’t mentioned it to anyone - not even his teacher. I asked his Government/Economics teacher, Rick McCloud, about it later, and he said Markeese has never said anything about it. He was surprised to hear it, but in a way not surprised because that’s the kind of kid Markeese is - he’s not the kind of kid who is going to make a fuss about his accomplishments. His Music Appreciation teacher, Andrew Chavarria said “I am surprised that he is in the National Guard solely based on his age. I have never seen anyone fully involved in the National Guard in high school. It’s just not something you see or hear about every day.” He went on to say, “Markeese is a great kid - he is attentive, involved, and shows an enthusiasm for learning. He also has a very infectious charisma from which other’s feed - he’s a gentleman and a scholar.”

Markeese’s interest in the military started while completing 3 years in NJROTC here at LDHS. During his junior year, Markeese decided to meet with a recruiter to find out his options for the future. I asked him what led him to this decision to join the National Guard, and his response was “I just want to serve my country.” It’s been about a year since he started the process - I asked if he ever had second thoughts. Not only did he tell me no - he said that he actually had to make multiple attempts to complete the process to sign up. To get started, you have to go to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) to take a physical and an aptitude test. Markeese ran into some bumps in the road for his vision screening, and he ended up having to make 3 separate trips to Columbia to finally receive the clearance he needed. Now, I vaguely recall being 18, and I would have had to REALLY want to do something to make 3 separate trips anywhere (truth be told I can still say the same thing about myself now). Markeese has already taken the oath, and he is working with the National Guard office in Clinton to get started with his service. Next fall he will go to Oklahoma for 15 weeks to complete basic training. I asked if was nervous - he said maybe a little, but he’s confident with his decision and will do what he needs to do.

Veterans Day is November 11, and while we stop to honor those who have served our country, I can’t help but feel a sense of pride for those who are stepping up to the plate to protect us in the future. History is at our fingertips now and the news never stops - anyone who makes the decision to sign up undoubtedly knows the weight of the commitment they are making. What Markeese is doing is honorable and rare. He’s one of us at Laurens District 55 High School, and a thread in the fabric that makes up our community. We are proud of you Markeese - we can’t thank you enough for your willingness to serve our community and our country.


9 months ago


There's More to the story

Sometimes there are stories you hear in life that give you a jolt of what reality really is. No doubt most of you have heard by now that Bryan Alvarez, a senior here at LDHS, was just accepted into Columbia University in New York City. Getting into an Ivy League is a rarity - it’s a big deal. Out of curiosity I looked it up, and discovered that in 2017 over 30,400 students applied for admission to Columbia University - only 1,710 were admitted. That’s an admit rate of just 5.62%. A little more research shows that of that small percentage, only about 15% come from the southern region of the United States. Now, I’m checking Google here, so give me a little room for error, but you get my point - most people don’t get into Columbia University. So, right there - we’ve got a lot to celebrate! Here’s the thing though - as with most things - there’s a little more to the story. Well, a lot more.

Turns out that Bryan’s journey to the Ivys started the day he was born. He was born with a number of health issues - doctors never expected him to walk. Day one and we’re up against huge odds. Right after he was born, his mom became very ill and needed to rely on extended family to help care for her and for Bryan - mainly his grandmother and 12 year old aunt. While Bryan was born in the United States, his family is from Colombia, South America. Bryan is bilingual which created another challenge for him growing up - it made him different. His speech and accent when he was younger set him apart from his peers at a time when all you want to do is fit in. He lives with his mom and his grandfather, and both have worked extremely hard to make sure he grew up feeling like he fit in, but he always knew he was different from most of the kids he went to school with - he knew there were cultural and financial differences. He continued to struggle with health problems stemming from his birth, as did his grandfather and aunt. We all know the financial toll this can take on a family. A little over 5 years ago, their living situation abruptly changed, and Bryan and his family were forced to move into an RV. They spent several weeks between the RV and an occasional night at his uncle’s, which allowed them to take showers and do laundry. They essentially lost everything, but they never gave up. Bryan can’t remember how long they were there - he doesn’t like to think about that time. Eventually his mom and grandfather were able to save enough money to purchase some land and make a down payment on a house in Laurens. His mom applied to start teaching at LDHS, and she now teaches Spanish here at the high school. His grandfather - in his late 70s - also continues to work as a long haul trucker so they can continue to thrive as a family.

I asked Bryan how he was able to stay motivated - it’s hard enough to be successful academically even under the most idyllic circumstances. Bryan credits the strong, female influences in his life - specifically his aunt. There was never a question in his family that he deserved the chance to grasp all that the future has to offer him. He’s also thankful for teachers like Teena Foy-Sullivan and Amanda Lloyd - both teach in the science department here at LDHS. He says they helped him “own his love for science” by always answering his questions and encouraging him to keep going above and beyond. Math teacher Willa Johnson gave him the confidence to be a leader and taught him the importance of self sufficiency. Andrew Chavarria (Strings) and Rob Sheffield (Robotics) showed him different ways to think about things and become more well rounded through music and STEM. Most of all, he is grateful to English teacher Michele Carroll. He is close friends with her son, and she has been his biggest supporter outside of his family. “I’ve never thought that this is something I’ve done alone,” Bryan says. It’s almost like pieces of a puzzle coming together to make one picture - the picture isn’t complete if even the smallest piece is missing. I think anyone that works in education recognizes the importance of being a puzzle piece. You don’t always know your impact - you rarely get instant gratification. All you have is the hope and belief that your contribution to each and every student helps complete their puzzle.

As for Bryan, he hopes that his story - which I’ve barely scratched the surface of - resonates with others. For him, it’s not about the academics - it’s about the hope. “There are lots of times in my life we’ve been down, and I’ve wanted to give up on everything. And I really want whoever reads this to know that it does get better. I know that sometimes it can be really hard, and you don’t know if you can take another step. But it will be okay. There are so many ups and downs in life, and it is so worth it.”

And he’s right - it’s worth it.

By Kathryn Black


7 months ago


Why is there a body on the floor

So I’ve mentioned previously that assistant principal Lewis Compton and I present a birthday card and sing to every senior student on their birthday. Because of that we visit a lot of classrooms at different times all during the semester. We’ve walked in on lectures, tests, discussions, you name it. However, nothing piqued my interest more than the day we found the body on the floor.

Okay - I did that for shock value, but seriously. We made a trip to a health science classroom, and right when we walk in, we see this mannequin sprawled across the floor between two hospital beds. So, not a real body, but a body nonetheless.

Anyway, it made me curious - I’ve heard of the health science classes, but I’ve never really investigated what they are about. First things first - the state requires 24 credits to graduate - 7 of those are elective credits.  Those electives give our students the opportunity to really explore what they may want to do once they graduate high school. Of course we have band, chorus, art, foreign language - the ones they offered when I was in school. However, LDHS also now offers a large selection of CATE (Career and Technology Education) courses. These pathways provide students an opportunity to go ahead and learn the skills necessary to enter the workforce, earn college credits, or simply try different career paths to help figure out what they want to do once they graduate high school.  Currently, LDHS offers CATE course options in Digital Art, Agriculture/Horticulture, Automotive Technology, Building Construction, Welding, Health Science, Project Lead the Way, and Business Education. So, after discovering the body, I wanted to learn just a little more about what we offer to those interested in Health Science.

Step one - I set up a time to meet with Mrs. Gibbs - a registered nurse and certified teacher at LDHS. The first thing I learned was that the body was part of the course Principles of Biomedical Science. It’s a Project Lead the Way Course (PLTW), so under the CATE umbrella. Last semester was the first time it was offered at LDHS, and it’s essentially an introduction to forensic science. Students were given a scenario and asked to figure out what happened based on the clues. In this case - why is there a body on the floor. Kind of like a big, semester long riddle that requires biology, chemistry, and the engineering side of health science.

Aside from Principles of Biomedical Science, LDHS also offers 4 levels of Health Science Classes. Students start at an introductory level and work their way through medical terminology, nursing skills, medical insurance, the healthcare system, anatomy, physiology, etc. Once students advance to Health Science 4, they actually go out into the field and earn clinical hours. Once a student completes the required course work, they can test to receive their CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) certification. If I’m a student even remotely interested in the healthcare field, having this opportunity is a HUGE benefit. To start, I can find out if I’m interested (FYI - this would not be for me personally - I wouldn’t have made it past the word “bedpan”). If I’m not, I can go ahead and explore other options. If I am and I complete the work, I have an edge over other students hoping to enter into the medical field. To start, if a student completes all of the Health Science course levels, they will graduate high school with over 100 clinical hours - all regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The experience also gives students an edge when applying to college; in her last level 4 Health Science class, Mrs. Gibbs had 100% college placement - 9 of those also had employment in place in the healthcare field.

So, while I know the medical field isn’t for me, I think it’s pretty cool that we have opportunities at LDHS for those who are interested in going that route - or if they are interested in digital art, horticulture, construction, welding, etc. Because we know that we all have individual talents and interests - not every student needs or wants to attend a 4 year college upon graduation. There are many roads to success - and sometimes they involve figuring out why there is a body on the floor. 


By Kathryn Black