UNION COUNTY — According to students, faculty and administration, Union County High School has changed — and continues to change — for the better.
Principal Floyd Lyles discussed what he called “a new dynamic” at UCHS as he walked through the halls Tuesday morning, mentioning a positive shift that is occurring. He said he believes the shift began with the introduction of senior cookouts in the past two years. The cookouts not only offer food and socializing, but also give students a voice, allowing them to make suggestions about the school.
“They take time to ask us questions about things we want changed,” said ninth grader Shaniah Jefferies. “Not that they will necessarily get changed, but they listen to us. That’s what’s important.”
As Lyles continued to walk the halls, stopping to say hello to various students and faculty members, he mentioned other positive activity taking place within the school. He and assistant principal Jenelle Gilliam discussed the Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Club, which met Monday morning. The club cleaned out a room — formerly a computer lab — which had turned into a room for storage. Members also participated in mock job interviews, with Lyles teaching them about impromptu speaking. Gilliam said she stressed the importance of appearance, personality and mannerisms during a job interview.
Lyles also brought up the PBIS (Positive Behavior, Interventions and Support) Team — made up of faculty members — and the campaign the team started known as Jacket POWER (Performance, Ownership, World awareness, Effective behaviors and Respect). He said all classes have the mission posted, and it is apparent that the campaign is taking effect.
“The students’ morale has improved drastically since the beginning of last year,” said administrative assistant Matt Thompson. “It’s been a school wide effort. Mr. Lyles has created more of a community, improving faculty and administration’s rapport with students.”
Lyles pointed out that the PBIS team brought back events such as the homecoming parade and winter ball, as well as introducing new events such as the student/faculty basketball game which was held as a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. Lyles said students paid $1 to attend and packed the gymnasium. He also said there were no discipline problems during the event. Another game is being planned for the near future.
The PBIS team has also organized a fashion show to be held at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 in the school cafeteria. Gilliam said the purpose of the fashion show is to give students an example of what is acceptable and unacceptable attire for this year’s prom. She said students will also receive door prizes, have a chance to customize the music selection for the prom by suggesting songs and learn about safety issues that often coincide with high school proms.
While walking through the halls, Lyles entered several classrooms to observe. For example, in Alyssa Fowler’s chemistry class, the topic of discussion was molecular mass, while Jeff Bell’s English class worked with vocabulary.
Lyles also stopped to check in with the guidance department, which he said received lots of compliments during a state department audit. Guidance Director Jim Palmer said he is excited to help students develop their lives on an individual basis, working to maximize each student’s strengths. He said he spoke with a student at church over the weekend, and the student showed him a letter of acceptance to a four-year college. The student then opened a folder to reveal an award of a $20,000 scholarship.
“My guidance counselor told me, ‘You will be OK. You will find a hole,’ but it’s not the Swiss cheese method anymore,” Palmer said. “You can get stuck in a hole because you don’t have the right education or enough education. Now, we teach students how to plan for the future and tell them the steps. The kids see that it’s working, and they get an offer. That’s why I’m excited.”
Palmer said there are opportunities right around the corner for all students, mentioning programs through SCE&G and BMW which lead to employment status. Lyles said that in addition to his role as guidance director, Palmer goes out of his way to help students. He even took more than 400 photographs at Saturday night’s Miss UCHS pageant.
“Kids respond to a personal touch and taking our time with each child,” Palmer said.
As Lyles continued down the hallway, he discussed a new late policy for students in which classroom doors are locked, and those who are left in the hall must go to the main office and sign in for a pass to class. One student, Kiana Brown, said even though she did not like the new system at first, she believes it is a good system.
“It’s making us more responsible,” she said, adding that the number of people tardy to class dropped from 100 to around 16. “People are on time every day now.”
As Lyles went outside the building during lunch, several boys were aware of his rules and yelled to each other, “Pull your pants up!”
Lyles also popped in on several teachers who had planning periods, with no students in the classroom. One of those was Douglas Rinaca, who will retire after this school year.
“I believe it is a privilege and a pleasure to serve the students of Union County,” Rinaca said. “I know of no more important tool you can have than an education. I want to continue to be a good influence on these young people. I think I’ve served them well and will continue to as long as I’m alive. I’m a chemistry teacher — and I know my subject — but I also have to teach self-belief. All these kids are winners.”
Lyles also visited longtime English teacher Ginger Fant, who talked about what it means to be a teacher.
“I told William Holcombe (of Holcombe Funeral Home), not to put ‘former teacher’ on my obituary,” Fant said. “Once you are a teacher, you are always a teacher. You never stop teaching.”
First-year math teacher Tiffani Gaskin said she has been pleased with students’ willingness to learn. She said her students made scatter plots on Monday, and she witnessed high levels of participation.
“Believe it or not, students want to do well, and they seek positive attention,” Gaskin said. “They are in the process of becoming independent learners. Right now, they are gaining confidence.”
Two students who are involved in JROTC — Hannah Hartley and Ethan Pendleton — mentioned several activities in which the program is currently involved, such as the Raider team’s upcoming participation in a physical fitness competition in Walhalla and the JLAB competition which could send the group to Washington again this year.
Pendleton, who is also a member of the school’s wrestling team, pointed out that the team currently has nine wrestlers who will compete in this year’s Upper State championships. He said he feels that the community often perceives the wrong image of UCHS.
“It’s normally a pretty happy and friendly place, no matter what,” he said.
Freshman Jada Rice agreed.
“The teachers and principals made it comfortable for us to be here and made us feel welcome,” Rice said. “They know our names and personalities. When we got here, they listened to us and treated us like young adults instead of children.”
Lyles said he is pleased that so many people are getting on board with the new implementations within the school.
“We are still a long way from where we need to be,” Lyles said. “Things happen and you try your best to be proactive. These are young people — and you have to lead them — but we are building the right team. I feel really good about where we’re headed.”
Staff Writer Derik Vanderford can be reached at 864-427-1234, ext. 29, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.