The position of state Teacher of the Year is not always a political one, but South Carolina's 1994 winner had a mission: to guarantee access to full-day kindergarten for every 5-year-old in the state.
That teacher, Dodie Rodgers, took her fight to the Statehouse and won. Retired now after finishing her kindergarten teaching career at Laurel Hill Primary School in Mount Pleasant, she recently sent her first granddaughter off to kindergarten sporting a '90s-vintage T-shirt from her long-ago crusade in Columbia.
Before 1994, Rodgers — Dodie Magill at the time — was teaching half-day kindergarten at Pelham Road Elementary in Greenville County. Research clearly showed that early childhood education could be more than just day care, and that full-day classes were crucial for many students' success.
She also noticed that, thanks to changing economic conditions, fewer and fewer families had a stay-at-home parent to look after a child who was only in school for half the day.
"It was a safety issue as well as, to me, a moral issue," Rodgers said. Noting that 1994 was the 25-year anniversary of public funding for half-day kindergarten in South Carolina, she vowed to make it a full day for all.
She started by asking for seed money from Gov. Carroll Campbell — without giving too many specifics about what she intended to do with it, she now admits. She spent that $2,500 to hire the high-powered marketing company Chernoff/Silver (now known as Chernoff Newman) to advise her on the campaign.
Her next step was to get teachers on board in a statewide show of solidarity. These were the days before automakers tried to earn publicity by donating a vehicle for the teacher of the year to use, so Rodgers made all her trips in her own minivan, whipping up support in towns big and small.
A friend had designed a short rhyming children's book, "My Kindergarten Story," that made the case for full-day kindergarten in a kid-friendly format. Rodgers encouraged teachers to invite their local lawmakers to read the book aloud in class.
'It wasn't just Dodie'
Rodgers' story is instructive for present-day educators who want to make broad systemic changes for the good of their students, according to Terry Knecht Dozier, director of the Center for Teacher Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Dozier was a South Carolina state and national teacher of the year herself in 1985, and she still holds up Rodgers' story as a gold standard for teacher leadership.
"She understood that there's strength in numbers. She had to figure out how it wasn’t just Dodie, and she involved all of the kindergarten teachers in the state," Dozier said.
Even the children's books were a cunning tactical move on Rodgers' part, according to Dozier. After all, what politician turns down a hometown photo opportunity?
Rodgers quickly figured out how to communicate with legislators on the floor of the Statehouse, too. As it turned out, it wasn't terribly different from her day job.
"As a kindergarten teacher, you have to be fast and creative," Rodgers said. "I figured out what their interest was: themselves."
Rodgers wrote letters to the secretaries of key legislators in the state House and Senate, asking them to dig up old photographs of the statesmen and stateswomen from when they were around 5 years old. Then she put them together in a slideshow alongside photos of present-day 5-year-olds in kindergarten, and she showed it during an impassioned testimony in Columbia.
Addressing a joint assembly of the House and Senate on March 23, 1994, she toted along an assortment of hats that she swapped out during her speech — both to keep lawmakers' attention and to give an object lesson.
"The teachers of today confront all of the challenging complexities of our world in the students we teach. Hunger, poverty, addiction and abuse, dysfunctional families, violence and, perhaps worst of all, indifference. We are struggling to adapt our teaching skills to meet these increasingly complicated needs," she said. "We must wear many, many hats."
One of only 13
She still has the carousel of projector slides from that presentation tucked away in a box full of mementos at her Mount Pleasant townhouse. Holding the slides up to the light, she can make out Sen. John Courson with a boyish gap in his teeth, Gov. Jim Hodges in plaid and a buzz cut, and Rep. Elsie Rast Stuart in a vintage Easter bunny suit.
The box also contains a few of the quintessentially '90s-themed pink and blue stickers that she used to place on high rollers' lapels at Rotary meetings and Senate hearings. This, too, was a crossover lesson from the classroom: People of all ages love stickers.
She even kept some old T-shirts, including one that she gave to her first granddaughter, Weller Magill, who started kindergarten in August at Whitesides Elementary.
Seated on her grandmother's couch during the final week of summer vacation, Weller said she was scared and a little nervous about starting school, but she also knew a bit of history: She was going to full-day kindergarten because her "Lolly" fought to make it happen.
Janice Poda, former director of the state Center for Teacher Recruitment, said she used to tell every state teacher of the year that they could use their credibility to make big changes at the state level.
"Dodie was the first to take me up on it," Poda said, "and boy did she."
After prolonged debate and multiple failed bills, state lawmakers passed a budget funding full-day kindergarten for low-income families in 1996, guaranteeing free kindergarten for all starting in 1998.
According to the Education Commission of the States, South Carolina today remains one of only 13 states that requires public funding of full-day kindergarten.