Rex Names J.V. Martin Principal as Leader for State ‘Turnaround Schools’ Initiative

June 12, 2009

COLUMBIA, SC – June 12, 2009 – State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex announced today that Amanda Burnette, principal of J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, will head a new statewide initiative to turn around some of South Carolina’s most challenged schools. 

The 17–year education veteran will direct the South Carolina Turnaround Schools Project, a new initiative aimed at improving student performance and closing the achievement gap. 

Burnette’s determination to promote equality in educational opportunities for all students garnered the attention of people throughout the world, including President Barack Obama, who made two trips to J.V. Martin during his campaign and pledged his commitment to improve conditions there.  The president also spoke about the school in February during his first address to a joint session of Congress.

Amanda Burnette is the ideal person to lead this effort, Rex said.  “Her enthusiasm, creativity and vigor were integral to improving teaching and learning at J.V. Martin Junior High.  Because of her hard work, the face of the school has changed.  Not only has she inspired students and teachers, she’s inspired that entire community and our nation as well.

The Turnaround Schools Project is a targeted expansion of the state’s Palmetto Priority Schools Project which works in collaboration with partners across the state to provide assistance to 41 Palmetto Priority Schools.  Those schools formed the collaborative when they failed to meet expected progress on student achievement required by the Education Accountability Act.  Burnette will report to Palmetto Priority Schools Director David Rawlinson.

“It’s always great to add someone to the team who comes in directly from the field,” Rawlinson said.  “Her successes and frustrations are still fresh in her mind, and she’ll be able to bring that perspective to broader policy discussions.”

Burnette said the Turnaround Schools initiative will provide an opportunity to share and build upon tried and true best practices.  “I’m excited to be a part of this innovative approach,” she said, “and I applaud Dr. Rex for taking a bold step to provide concentrated assistance to the schools that need it most.

 During Burnette’s tenure at J.V. Martin, the school experienced a dramatic transformation that included marked gains in test scores in all core subject areas, improved student attendance and a significant boost in the caliber of teaching. 

 “Amanda’s efforts in working with teachers have instilled a powerful movement at J.V. Martin,” said Dillon 2 Superintendent Ray Rogers.  “Her ideas and support set a high standard of excellence and motivated both faculty and students to work hard and achieve academic excellence.”

Burnette was instrumental in bringing attention to the school’s plight, and while at J.V. Martin she helped to secure donations totaling more than $1 million dollars.  Donated items ranged from books and band instruments to new furniture for the entire school.

“Amanda has built relationships with philanthropists and business people from around the world who share in her excitement about educating all students,” said Rex. 

One of Burnette’s students, Ty’Sheoma Bethea, was invited to join the First Family for Obama’s first address to Congress after she sent a letter to Washington seeking help for the school.  Bethea wrote the letter on a computer at the Dillon public library after Obama mentioned J.V. Martin in his first press conference as an example of inadequate schools that would be helped by the federal economic stimulus plan.  Burnette assisted Bethea in getting her letter to members of Congress and eventually to the President.  Once the President’s invitation for his address was extended, Burnette helped to secure funds needed for Bethea and her mother to make the trip to Washington.

“My principal has given me the confidence to know that every child has a voice,” said Bethea, who graduated from middle school earlier this month and is now headed to high school.  “She has made a difference in my life and the lives of all students who will attend J.V. Martin after me. Her goal is to create the best school possible, one where every student, without exception, will succeed.”

John Harlow, a member of J.V. Martin’s School Improvement Council, also praised Burnette.

“Amanda came to J.V. Martin tasked to ‘turn the school around’ using pretty much the same budget and human resources provided to earlier principals,” Harlow said.  “The difference was her contagious vision that our students were not the problem, but instead were the solution.”

Prior to working in Dillon, Burnette served as principal at Ewing Middle School and Blacksburg Elementary School, both in Gaffney (Cherokee County).  She begins her new duties at the Education Department on June 20. 

The Turnaround Schools Project will organize small clusters of schools with common attributes, such as school type, student needs and reform approaches. The project will require schools to change conditions in teacher quality, leadership and curriculum and instruction.  While the Education Department will take a leadership role in building a constituency for  turnarounds, schools will have the authority to change their existing climates through flexibility in state regulations and policies that deal with hiring, budget, curriculum and teaching.

The Turnaround Schools Project is based upon the work of Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, an independent non-profit group funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and devoted to student achievement.