By Zach Newcastle
DILLON- Shawn Johnson helps people.
It is why he was put on earth, he believes. Facing odds that would cause most to call it quits, the high school principal has not only succeeded, but also surpassed what many believed possible.
How? By holding students accountable.
Walking through the institutional unadorned brick halls of Dillon High School in District 4, it’s hard to miss Johnson. Standing at a stately 6 feet 3 inches tall, Johnson, has made his presence known among the Dillon High student body from his first day.
Johnson, 36, greets every student at the front door each morning. He makes sure that each student has a relationship with him, from the oboe player to the star quarterback.
Before Johnson arrived in 2012 as principal at Dillon High, students held less respect for the school, and some students would often skip classes to wander the halls, Johnson said. Now the halls of Dillon High are hushed, with priority restored back to learning.
Dillon High School lies in what is known as South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame,” coined by a 2005 documentary. The documentary, produced and directed by Bud Ferillo of Columbia, highlighted impoverished school districts mainly along Interstate 95.
In 1993, 39 of the poorest school districts, including Dillon District 2, of the counties three districts, sued the state for inequities in state funding. The case, Abbeville vs. The State of South Carolina, was the longest trial in the state’s history, and exposed a funding system, based on local property tax collections, that put poor, rural schools further and further behind their more prosperous suburban and urban counterparts.
In November of 2014, the state ruled in favor of the rural districts, directing legislators and school officials to work together on a solution.
Making the best of their eight school hours
More than 100 miles away from the South Carolina State House, Johnson isn’t worried about the lawsuit. Having more funding won’t change his day-to-day approach to mentoring his students.
“We try to make school the best eight hours of the day,” Johnson said.
In a town like Dillon, where Johnson said students find little opportunity for enrichment outside school walls, those critical school hours are his main focus. He urges students not to get caught up in the town but to strive for personal achievement.
“You can’t control home, but you can control your life,” Johnson said. “I tell them to do what you need to do here and get out. There’s nothing here for you.”
Johnson grew up in Brittons Neck, an unincorporated community in the southern part of Marion County, another impoverished locality tucked along Interstate 95. His aunt and uncle were both educators and steered him toward a career in education.
“I always had a lifetime goal from 10th grade on to start teaching in Brittons Neck and eventually become a principal,” Johnson said.
Part of the reason he came to Dillon High is that he knows all too well the struggles that students at high poverty high minority schools face every day.
“A lot of the time they don’t have what other schools have,” Johnson said. “That’s my way of giving back. I was a minority, I was a child of poverty, all of the factors they say normally don’t succeed.”
Johnson tells his students to not let their surroundings hold them back.
“It’s not about where you came from. It’s where you’re going. That’s what we try to do here,” Johnson said.
Students echo these sentiments and believe the best thing for them to do is to look beyond Dillon. “There aren’t any opportunities,” said Hy-Keen McKoy, 18, a senior at Dillon High. “Our main priority is to get out.”
Some students felt a noticeable difference at Dillon High when Johnson took over. “There were less fights,” said senior Raven Harrison, also 18. “He would make sure people were going to class and doing what they need to do.”
Johnson has been the principal at Dillon High School for only three years but already has made an immense impact. Under his leadership, graduation rates at Dillon High have leaped 25 percent from the 52-57 percent before he arrived.
His secret: Treating the students as adults.
“I let them know that they can achieve,” Johnson said. “I tell them ‘Look at the people who have gotten out.’”
Johnson was principal at Plantersville High School in Georgetown before he took the job at Dillon High. Johnson was also a pastor while in Georgetown, and his faith guides the way he approaches his work.
Johnson said he didn’t have any preconceived notions going into Dillon.
“You have to believe all kids can make it,” Johnson said. “I would do the same thing if I was teaching in New York.”
Dillon 4 Superintendent Ray Rogers, who has been a superintendent in Dillon for all 22 years of the Abbeville case, isn’t holding his breath.
“We have learned to work with what we have,” Rogers said. “At this point, it is about doing what we can for these kids.”
When Rogers knew when he hired Johnson that he would make an immediate difference, describing him as “dynamic.”
“He just made a difference. He genuinely cared for the kids,” Rogers said. “He wants them to do well.”
In Gov. Nicki Haley’s January inauguration address, she said, “In the South Carolina I dream of, a daughter of Dillon starts each day with the same hope and possibility as a son of Greenville.”
Johnson sees the governor’s dream as a reasonable standard worth striving for, and with the education conversation often focusing on race, Johnson agreed with the governor that main issue with education is lack of opportunity, regardless of race.
“People think it is about color,” he said. But he pointed out that “you can take a white student or a black student from Dillon, a white student or a black student from Greenville, same color, but because of the economics, because Greenville,” and the opportunities will differ because of the economics not race.
“The school system will be able to provide them more opportunity and experiences. Whereas a rural school here, if we don’t get creative with ways to provide experiences these kids won’t have them, and all they’ll see is Dillon.”
Ultimately, what Johnson tries to do is make Dillon High a safe haven and open doors that may not be available for students once they are off campus grounds.
“We can’t go into the homes and change the homes,” Johnson said. “The next two places are church and school, so our school should be able to provide opportunities and experiences that the homes just can’t.