CLEMSON — When Damian Williams set his mind to raising the five-figure sum required to get him and 54 of his fellow students to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, he didn’t overthink it. He just asked for it. He visited just about every contact he had made during his time as an elementary education major and undergraduate student government attorney general, and it turns out his idea wasn’t a hard sell.
Williams knew he had six months to raise the funds, but he led an effort that raised more than $23,000 in under six weeks from various sources at Clemson University. His classmates will want for nothing during their two-day trip later this week to the academy, an unorthodox but undeniably effective private, nonprofit school that educates underserved students in the fifth through eighth grades. Williams visited the academy on his own in spring 2015, and based on his experience he believed the seniors in the College of Education would benefit from witnessing its unusual approach in action.
“I didn’t want to just give a presentation about what I learned; I wanted to take people there,” Williams said. “We’re trying to be great teachers and agents of change; we might not be able to implement everything we see, but we can take home lessons learned in how to approach students in a different way.”
The academy is Harry Potter-themed. A giant slide serves as the school’s centerpiece. Dancing is part of the curriculum. Music is omnipresent. Test scores are off the charts. However, none of these things are what really stuck with Williams after his first visit.
Williams said the students emerge as better human beings. The academy is the brain child of Ron Clark and Kim Bearden, who combine academic and “moral education” for students from the poor, underserved areas around the school. That moral education is achieved through Clark’s 55-rule code of conduct, which covers such topics as how to make eye contact, address an adult and engage in respectful conversation.
During his first visit, Williams and Clark had a two-hour conversation about education and positively affecting children and Clark invited him to return. It was Williams’ idea to make the return trip with a busload of seniors. Williams is part of Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program, which aims to increase the pool of available teachers from broader, more diverse backgrounds, particularly among the lowest-performing elementary schools.
“One of the most valuable lessons from Call Me MISTER relates to leaving a legacy,” Williams said. “This trip will be what I leave to students and to Clemson.”
Williams said the lack of focus on character in schools during his formative years is what nearly ruined his chances to remain at Clemson University. Williams is originally from Elloree, South Carolina, a town located in the state’s so-called “corridor of shame,” and a focus on character wasn’t a top priority for his teachers there. Williams grew accustomed to teachers talking down to him or ridiculing other children because of their living situations. He came to Clemson with defenses up.
“I felt like I needed to keep my wall up about my accent or where I’m from, so my GPA and my confidence suffered,” Williams said. “I had to work twice as hard to transition academically and socially, but my conversations with Ron Clark were a turning point.”
Deborah Smith, a professor in Clemson’s College of Education, regularly discusses Ron Clark and his techniques in her classes, so she was the first to introduce his work to Williams. Smith said she was initially skeptical the students could raise the required funds, but she wasn’t surprised when they did because she was fully aware of their drive to make it happen.
“Damian is a great example of what hard work and perseverance will do for a student, but he also had a great plan,” Smith said. “He did the majority of the work asking individuals for donations, but he wisely relied on a great group of seniors for help.”
One of those students was Haley White, whom Williams refers to as the trip’s assistant coordinator. Williams’ emphasis area is mathematics, so White acted as coordinator for literacy. While White was also surprised at the speed at which they raised money, she knew the opportunity would sell itself.
“Damian really poured his time into this, and for good reason,” White said. “As student teachers we see how difficult it can be to get kids excited and engaged in learning. If we can gain some strategies that will help them see how important learning is we can show them how invested we as educators are in their education.”
While Williams puts the final touches on plans for the senior trip, he’s also planning his career after graduation. He’s got a five-year plan — he won’t share every aspect of it, especially those long-range goals — but he knows where he’ll be in the short term.
He doesn’t want to start out in a classroom where the test scores are already good, so he has refused some higher paying jobs straight out of Clemson so that he can get back to his home town of Elloree. He already knows what he wants to implement for students in his hometown, and he wants his fellow seniors to have those same tools that will build knowledge and character in their students.
“I want my fellow students to see that as future educators they can be the person who shows students that no one can dictate who they are or where they’re going in the future,” Williams said. “I wish that someone had done that for me earlier on and taught me that I wasn’t summed up by what people said about my family.”