Chief Academic Officer, Charleston County School District
After holding education leadership roles all over the map, Karolyn Belcher could easily teach geography. She has spent her 31-year career in posts of increasing importance in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Houston, New York, Boston, and Charleston.
Her lifelong education journey began with joining Teach For America (TFA) in 1990, the year the first corps was established.
“I’m a charter corps member,” smiled Belcher. “At the time, I was pre-med but not absolutely sure I wanted to be a doctor. My lab was at the top of a four-story walk-up. Every day, I passed a TFA poster with this message: Who Will Teach for America?”
“I finally said … well, I’ll teach for America. The idea of a service corps intrigued me. I felt I could give back while I took some time to understand what I really wanted as a career.”
She chose to educate, not operate. But it took tough-mindedness and determination.
In her TFA classroom in New Orleans, Belcher taught six science classes, 180 kids a day. She witnessed firsthand the impact poverty has on engagement in school. Three weeks into her first assignment, the New Orleans school system went on strike. Then, her apartment burned, sending her possessions up in smoke. She had to piece together her personal and professional lives by the day.
Yet, here Belcher stands today, inspiring and inspired. The best medicine for fulfillment in her own career turned out to be education.
She currently serves as chief academic officer for the Charleston County School District. Belcher and her Learning Services team oversee classroom curriculum, instruction, academic improvement strategy, early childhood education, and special education programs at more than 80 schools.
“The core business of the district falls to my team,” she said.
The second-largest school district in South Carolina has more than 40,000 students. Some of her schools rank among the best in the state; some historically struggle. Charleston County is a place of haves and have-nots, of rural and urban divides. There is a racial opportunity gap.
“It’s not a county that lacks resources to do right by kids,” said Belcher, “but it’s an unequal system in places.”
“I’m now very encouraged in seeing a larger community that supports student learning. Many businesses and nonprofits have stepped up to support schools in the past year. They understand that education takes a village, not just a school system.”
Belcher said the biggest challenge to students is access to quality teachers, engaging materials, and supportive adults.
“We have work to do to make sure we’re allocating resources to ensure every child in Charleston County is getting quality education,” she said. “We have the levers in place – supportive philanthropies and religious communities and local leadership. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”
She added, “Charleston County reflects our nation. If we can show, with our unique history, that it’s possible to give every kid the gift of an excellent education, it would send a message to every part of the country.”
“If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”