Building bridges across the opportunity gap

Booker’s work helping underrepresented students continues in retirement

When Dr. Russell Booker talks about the opportunity gap, it’s not just theoretical musings from an education executive. Booker lived it.

Booker’s parents didn’t go to college. “My dad, when he graduated from high school, he didn’t have many college options,” he says, “because, of course, things were segregated at the time.” Booker’s father went into the military for a while, then toted his lunch pail to the Spartanburg, S.C., textile plant Hoechst Celanese for years, working his way up from security guard to the HR department. Booker’s mom was a seamstress.

They worked hard and raised three good, smart kids. But college? That was an iffy proposition for their offspring.

“Going to college was not a foregone conclusion for me and my brother and my sister,” Booker says. “Quite frankly, my mom and dad would have been just as content if I’d gone to work at Hoechst Celanese. Benefits, good salary.”

Booker had other ideas. A good athlete but an indifferent high-school student, he didn’t have the grades and test scores to study architecture at Clemson, his dream at the time, so he looked elsewhere, eventually landing at a small NAIA school a couple of hours away. Booker earned a partial scholarship to play football at Wingate, part of the first team at the school in two decades.

Arriving on the small campus a few miles north of the state line, he felt like he had a second chance, and boy did he make the most of it. The atmosphere at Wingate was calibrated perfectly for Booker, who relished the small class sizes and the faith-based Lyceums. He found his footing academically and stumbled upon education as a calling.

Thirty years later, Booker, a 1991 Wingate graduate, is a recent retiree, having stepped down in June from leading Spartanburg (S.C.) School District 7 for a decade as the superintendent, earning plaudits for his innovative approach and commitment to his community. He has won more awards than his bookshelves can hold, including the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. And he’s been a Wingate trustee for the past 17 years.

But Booker also knows that as a first-generation college student, his rise from apathetic high-school student to decorated education executive is the exception, rather than the rule. And much of his career has been devoted to changing that.

Finding his feet

All the way through seventh grade, Booker considered himself a good student. He was a good student. But then came pre-algebra.

Booker made a C. A C! Up to that point, Cs had been for other students, not Booker. It meant he wouldn’t automatically advance to algebra in eighth grade. Booker had to take a test before he could progress, and he didn’t do well on it. That left him in unfamiliar territory, set adrift after he assumed he would continue on to the more-advanced course.

“I’m going to tell you, I lost all my confidence at that point,” he says.

What came next was a few lost academic years, where football took over as Booker’s primary focus. He excelled as a wide receiver (he would eventually lead Wingate in receptions during his senior season), enough that he thought he could play at the next level. But it wasn’t until the second semester of his junior year in high school that Booker started buckling down in the classroom again. It was almost too little, too late.

Almost. “Wingate took a chance on me,” he says.

The Bookers didn’t have a lot of money, but they did have brains and a strong work ethic, and they were willing to accept help when opportunity knocked. For Russell Booker, that meant taking advantage of Wingate’s historical strengths. He leaned on the relationships he forged inside the Gate, with professors (Pam Thomas and Sarah Harrison Burns in particular), administrators (Bill Nash, Lynn Moss) and friends (Billy Blakeney, Jackie Lewis).

He also kept his nose clean and studied, and by the time he graduated, Booker was on the president’s list and was honored as the senior football player with the highest grade-point average.

It was a long way from that C in pre-algebra, and Booker credits his ability to recognize what type of riches he actually had in his life for his change in fortunes.

“I talk to people about this notion of economic mobility,” Booker says. “For some people, it’s financial capital that helps them. But what if you don’t have financial capital? For some people it’s human capital. And for some people, it’s social capital. In my life, it’s been that social capital that’s helped me along the way.”

He continues to impart that wisdom, even in retirement.

Thriving career

Booker started out as a psychology major at Wingate, because, he says, he wanted to help people. But when he took an education psychology class, he realized his true calling.

“I had to do a practicum in a school,” he says. “The kids responded to me, I responded to them, and I fell in love with working with children.”

Shortly, he found himself in his adviser’s office, saying he wanted to change his major. But he needed to settle on which age group he would work with: elementary, middle or high school. Reexamining his life to that point, he came to an obvious conclusion.

“I thought about my life and where I lost my confidence, and it was middle school,” he says. “So I decided I wanted to become a middle-school teacher.”

During his first year of teaching after graduation, Booker was encouraged by his principal, Rose Burns at Monroe Middle, to consider working toward a job in administration one day. He had assumed he would spend his career teaching and coaching, but Burns saw something in Booker that he had never noticed: She saw a potential leader.

Her words stuck with him, even after he had moved back to Spartanburg after a year in Monroe, and by the time he was 26 Booker was out of the classroom, working in administration. A year later, he was a principal. By 36, he was a superintendent.

“She planted that seed in me,” he says of Burns. “It goes back to her telling me, ‘Russell, I think you can do this.’ That’s what so many of our young people lack.”

Booker has spent much of his career working to keep students, especially those of color, from slipping through the cracks. District 7 represents both the wealthiest and the least affluent areas of Spartanburg, Booker says. Those in poverty often find it difficult to keep up, because of a lack of access to information their peers can easily obtain.

As superintendent of District 7, Booker proposed, and found funding for, an initiative to provide every student with a MacBook computer. “The disparities were real,” he says. “It was what I would call a morally right thing to do for our children.”

He also worked with local nonprofits to provide space in the community, such as in churches, where students could use free Wi-Fi for study purposes.

In devising the initiative, Booker knew that sustainability was vital. “A lot of times districts will get a pot of money, a grant, and then the money’s gone,” he says. “Two years later you’re in need of refreshing but you don’t have the funding.” He made sure that the funding for the MacBook venture was built into the district’s operational budget.

Booker says the initiative has had positive results, including improvements in attendance, discipline and graduation rates.

The initiative brought with it plenty of plaudits. It helped District 7 become one of 97 school districts in the country selected as part of the League of Innovative Schools. District 7 was also named an Apple Distinguished School District, and Booker was one of 100 superintendents invited to a White House ceremony where former President Obama unveiled his nationwide broadband plan.

Purposeful retirement

In his decade in charge, Booker remained dedicated to innovation, one reason he received the Order of the Palmetto and was named a South Atlantic Conference Distinguished Alumnus.

He oversaw the construction of some innovative new schools, including Spartanburg High School, which makes creative use of every nook and cranny in the building. “Every space in that school is a learning environment,” Booker says, a fact that makes the former aspiring architect especially proud.

Booker also got creative in his efforts to keep pace with trends in education, developing Viking Early College, a single-sex school that further helps bridge the social-mobility gap by providing historically underrepresented boys with the opportunity to leave high school with an associate degree.

“As we looked at students who were matriculating to college and who weren’t, it was your male students, and in particular it was your male students of color, black and brown, who weren’t,” Booker says. “If you went to AP classes, you would see students who came from more-affluent families, and in that district that translated to many of your Caucasian families. But there were solid students walking around who may not have been AP but had the wherewithal to do college work.”

In South Carolina, though, the state legislature doesn’t provide funding for early-college high schools. To get his initiative off the ground, Booker forged public-private partnerships. The school is thriving, he says.

Booker’s work dovetails nicely with Wingate University’s mission, which is to be a school of opportunity. As a longtime trustee, Booker is helping set Wingate’s direction as a place where first-generation students, like him, can find the encouragement necessary to aim high.

He is also continuing his personal mission in a variety of ways: as executive director of Spartanburg Academic Movement, a nonprofit focused on improving education in Booker’s hometown; and through One Acorn, a leadership-based consulting agency Booker and his wife, Sheryl, started last year.

So, retirement the Booker way is far more than leisurely breakfasts and golf, but it suits him. “I’m a whole lot busier than I was as a superintendent,” he says, “but a whole lot less stressed.”

And he continues to find ways to keep young Russell Bookers on the path to greatness.

  • ODOD 2021