Haut Gap Principal Paul Padron takes on new Charleston County position to close the achievement gap
When Paul Padron lived in Cuba, his college-educated father had an executive position that provided a good life for him and his six siblings.
Padron's family moved to America when he was 5, and his father could find work only as a janitor. Padron lived in poverty and struggled to learn English, but his parents made sure he received a good education.
Padron, 56, grew up to become an educator, and he's spent most of his career teaching and leading students in Charleston County schools. Now he's taking on a new position that's designed to help the kid he once was.
Padron will be the executive director of access and opportunity. His main focus will be narrowing the achievement gap between white students and historically underachieving groups such as high-poverty students, those whose first language isn't English and racial minorities.
It's the first time the district has had this position, and some of Padron's colleagues told him they thought it was written for him. District officials say Padron was their hands-down first choice.
“He brought a vision to this body of work that wasn't just reflective of his professional accomplishments but of his personal experiences,” said Lisa Herring, the district's associate superintendent for academics, student support and intervention services.
“That, I think, really helps add meaning to this work that he's going to do.”
An enviable reputation
Padron has earned respect among teachers and administrators during the last five years he's spent leading Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island.
When he took the job, the school had the worst possible state rating, “at risk,” and it enrolled 197 students. Ninety percent of those students were black. Many of the children who lived in nearby neighborhoods opted to attend higher-performing schools elsewhere.
Much has changed since then. Haut Gap rated “good” this past year, and Padron feels confident that it will receive the state's highest mark of “excellent” this fall. Enrollment has ballooned to more than 560 students, and its diversity better reflects that of the surrounding community. Forty-five percent are black, 40 percent are white and 15 percent are Hispanic.
Padron started an Advanced Studies partial magnet program, and it's been a key to the school's success. Haut Gap Middle also is a model site for the district's Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, which teaches students how to act at school.
The program's goal is to create school climates that are better for learning, and that's going to be Padron's No. 1 strategy for helping low-performing students.
“If we can't look at kids as learners, we can't close the achievement gap,” he said.
Nearly half the district's 80 schools already use the program, but Padron said they are doing so only at a low level.
It's more than getting students to walk in a straight line in the hall, he said. It's a framework for setting high expectations in their academic work and cognitive engagement, he said. That means students are expected to be prepared for and participate in lessons, he said.
“We always focus on what's wrong with the kids,” he said. “Let's focus on what we're doing for them. Let's stop saying, 'What's wrong with them?' ”
Narrowing the gap
Like many school districts nationally, Charleston County has a significant gap between its white students and minority groups. While the graduation rate for white students was 83.9 percent in 2011, it was nearly 20 percentage points lower for black students at 64.6 percent. And Hispanic students fared the worst, at 61.3 percent.
Eliminating that disparity and improving the overall graduation rate are two of the district's three main goals. Creating a position to concentrate on those issues will help make that happen, officials said.
Still, some School Board members questioned the need for another administrator in what they see as a top-heavy district, and whether Padron's $101,900 salary would be better spent elsewhere. Padron's other duties will include supervising gifted and talented students; fine arts programs; magnet, charter and other schools of choice; and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports programs across the district.
Board member Chris Collins wanted to know whether the position could exist without additional cost, and board member Elizabeth Moffly took issue with the superintendent reorganizing her staff without board approval.
Board member Elizabeth Kandrac said the district didn't need to hire someone to focus on this area; it just needed to educate students. She also questioned Padron's experience, saying schools where he previously worked were “worse than ever.” Haut Gap is Padron's first principal job.
Collins, Kandrac and Moffly voted against hiring Padron on Monday, but the board majority prevailed. Board member Brian Thomas wasn't present.
Padron said he hopes he can work himself out of this new job and back into a principal's role at a middle school.
“If we change the way we look at kids … and if we look at kids as learners, there will not be a need for this position in the future,” he said. “But we have a tremendous gap right now, so we have to go back to 'Are we seeing them as learners?' ”
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story gave the wrong age for Paul Padron. The Post and Courier regrets the error.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.