King's Gambit

South Carolina's Dr. Baron R. Davis is innovating through the unpredictable and bringing teachers of color to the classroom.

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: August 03, 2021

In the northeast suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina, Richland County School District Two is proving that “premier” is more than an ideal. Through an inherent belief in every person’s value and potential, Superintendent Dr. Baron R. Davis is making this a reality.

For Davis, leading this richly diverse system has offered a unique chance to continue his evolution as an authentic and innovative educator. Not only is Davis making history in Richland Two—he’s the district’s first African American superintendent—but he’s also crafting a legacy where “premier” means community, representation, and authenticity.

Now that he has five degrees to his name, it’s hard to believe that Davis’ lifelong career as a student and educator almost never happened. When he met with his assigned high school counselor as a senior, she said college wasn’t even on the table for him. “It really was that direct,” he recalls. “You can’t go to college. You are not college material. And this was my counselor talking.”

As fate would have it, a second counselor overheard the unfortunate conversation and intervened. “His name was Mr. Robert Cleveland,” Davis tells us. “He pulled me into his office and said, Hey, you are capable of going to college. Let me help
you.
” This encounter would change the trajectory of Davis’ entire life. “I was so fortunate he did that because I was going to take her advice,” he says. “I decided at that point that I wanted to be someone who helps students.”

After working with kids through summer coaching and the Parks and Recreation Department of Columbia, Davis eventually decided to study counseling himself. “I really wanted to repair that wrong,” he says. “I wanted to be that counselor who tells kids like me, You can go to college.” Davis, however, had yet to understand the significance of this career choice. “It wasn’t until I was actually in education that I realized this is where I’m supposed to be,” he tells us. ”It’s not just a passion; it’s my calling.”

Image: A community meeting in Richland County School District Two

Community Rich

Davis first learned the true meaning of community as a child, growing up in public housing in Columbia. He describes his childhood as “economically poor, but community rich.”

“We took care of each other,” he says. “My housing community met my needs of love and belonging. I felt loved by all of my neighbors. We took care of them; they took care of us. And we also had a lot of opportunities for fun and freedom. There was always safety in that community.”

Though he was raised by his grandmother, Davis remained close to his parents and credits his Uncle Tim for having a profound influence on his life. “My uncle really helped me find myself as a responsible, God-fearing man,” he says. In fact, mentors play a recurring and vital role in Davis’ life, from the intervening high school counselor to his friends’ parents who made him read books whenever he came over.

Support in Davis’ community was often as innovative as the schools he now runs. He describes a local grocery—Joe’s Store—where neighborhood residents could buy food and household necessities on old-fashioned credit. “They’d simply staple your receipt into a ledger, and my grandmother and other members of the community would pay on their debt,” he explains. “We were still able to meet our basic needs, whatever they were, without a credit card. That provided a
sense of comfort and security for us.”

It’s no wonder Davis has devoted his life to fostering more supportive and inclusive communities for the children of South Carolina—it’s because he knows how far kids can go with the right kind of encouragement. “All the people I was around had my best interests at heart,” he tells us. “And this was long before all the research and before buzzwords like SEL—this is just what Black communities do.”

Davis got his first degree in sociology and worked as a counselor for education nonprofit Upward Bound. Then, years before becoming superintendent, his impact on the area began. As he worked on his Ph.D., Davis was assistant principal at Richland Two’s Spring Valley High School. He later served two principalships before becoming assistant superintendent for the district. In that role, he successfully pushed to keep Richland Two in the League of Innovative Schools and helped to establish their Assistant Principal Academy, Administrators Development Series, Training Administrators Program, and Administrators Mentoring Program.

His transition into the superintendency would be unique. Appointed by the school board as superintendent-elect in 2016, he shadowed his predecessor, Dr. Debra W. Hamm, for one year as she prepared to retire. The two worked closely together on decision-making, and she eventually became an advisor as he took the helm and started his superintendency.

Now entering his fifth year as superintendent of Richland Two, Davis continues to find ways to make his district one of the most acclaimed in the area. And with
close to 28,000 students and 39 learning sites, that’s no small feat. But it’s also Davis’ chance to shape a community where kids learn their value and potential. Who better to do that than someone who knows the area and all its struggles by heart?

Image: Dr. Barron Davis handing a lunch tray to a smiling young student.

Premier Starts Here

Carved out of Richland County in the center of the state, Richland Two is the largest school district in the South Carolina Midlands. It’s made up of small cities on the outskirts of Columbia, ranging from urban to suburban to rural, making it a unique community to serve. The district is also home to Fort Jackson, the country’s largest Army training base, as well as a high concentration of military veterans.

“Richland Two is extremely diverse,” Chief Communications Officer Libby Roof tells us. “That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on: Our schools and our district look like the world in many ways.” Black students make up 61% of the student body, while 19% are white, 12% are Hispanic, and 3% are Asian. About 56% of the district’s families fall at or below the poverty line.

In an effort to further diversify and offer more opportunities to local students, Richland Two is also a self-described “District of Choice.” Regardless of which school they’re closest to, Richland students can apply to attend any of the district’s nearly 40 magnet programs. From a business school to a fitness magnet to a zoological and botanical school, Richland Two has something to offer every student.

When Davis officially began his superintendency in 2017, he set out on a mission to solidify Richland Two as the premier school district in the area. “It’s not about being number one,” he says. “It’s about being true to your values and your beliefs. So we started out by saying we weren’t going to let someone else define what premier means for Richland Two. What’s the best version of innovation for our schools? What’s our ideal version of an inclusive and diverse school district? What does premier security look like for our facilities?”

Davis admits that being premier means the district has to constantly grow and change. “You are continuously evolving because you will never hit that ideal version of your organization,” he says. “You should constantly be working toward improvement. Each individual in the organization has to strive to be premier, to be the best—whether it’s a classroom teacher, school administrator, student, parent, or business partner. We’re all working toward being the best versions of ourselves. That’s why we say, Premier starts here.”

The first step toward Davis’ vision for Richland Two was funding much-needed improvements and upgrades around the district. His solution was Pathway to Premier, an ambitious 10-year facilities plan focused on making all district schools “21st-century safe and secure.” Davis knew he had to rally his community behind the measure, so he and his team started with a series of presentations throughout the district. They let stakeholders examine, discuss, and provide feedback on the plan and its effect on their specific schools. The team also met with faculty, parent, business, and faith-based advisory groups before the final plan was approved by the board in May of 2018.

To earn stakeholder buy-in, Davis and his team conducted nearly 50 separate presentations on the bond between August and November of that same year. Davis personally attended almost every one. “I shared the overall vision of where we were going and gave the reasoning behind what we were doing—why we needed to do this,” he explains. The Richland Two community would eventually pass the $468 million bond referendum with overwhelming support.

Well beyond the successful bond campaign, Davis’ premier vision holds enormous power in Richland Two, both for students and staff. “They see it everywhere: Premier. Period. We started out with T-shirts, and now even our board says it,” he tells us. “And that’s the expectation. Premier is displayed in every school and shared in every tagline on Twitter. We call our top 10 students at each high school our Premier Scholars.” For Davis, it’s about believing in what you can do and how you can grow. Armed with this mindset, he’s nurturing a working and learning community where anyone can find their value. “People who are committed to the idea of being the best are able to thrive and then evolve,” Davis says. “You have to have the belief, the mindset, and the heart for premier work.”

There’s no doubting Davis’ gift for getting others to believe in his vision. Over his four years as superintendent, he’s used that talent to help the district build strong community support—as well as rack up an impressive list of accolades. In 2019, Richland Two became one of only 250 systems nationwide to be placed on the College Board’s 10th Annual AP District Honor Roll. That same year, Davis’ strong commitment to supporting local military families also helped Richland Two become one of the few South Carolina districts to be named a Purple Star School District.

But more important than any district honor is the lasting impact Davis and his team are making on the students of Richland Two through their unified vision. In fact, Davis was recently awarded the 2021 Bob Grossman Leadership in School Communications Award, thanks in large part to his success in sharing the #PremierStartsHere message to the district’s broad array of stakeholders.

“When you walk into our schools, I hope you see educators who are not only a family, but are also taking on the responsibility of developing students into global citizens who will lead and excel in whatever pathway they choose,” Davis tells us. “You’re going to see us working to be inclusive in our practices. You’re going to see people focused on being the best versions of themselves. And you’re going to see people committed to and focused on helping students identify their gifts and talents.”

Dr. Barron Davis greets a table of young people during a luncheon.

Innovative Inclusion

According to a 2017 study from the Institute of Labor Economics, when Black students from low-income families have at least one Black teacher during elementary school, they’re less likely to drop out of high school—and more likely to be interested in college. But while Black kids make up roughly 15% of America’s K-12 student body, only 7% of the country’s teachers are Black, and just 2% are Black men. In Richland Two, Davis has been working hard to disrupt these statistics, specifically focusing on hiring and retaining male teachers of color through the Premier 100 Initiative.

“The data and the research have been very clear about the impact of young African American students, particularly boys, having a male of color as their classroom teacher within the first three to five years of their educational experience,” Davis explains. In a 2019 audit of Richland Two schools, the numbers showed that only 6% of the district’s teachers were men of color—so Davis set a goal to hire 100 more over the next four years. “The goal is not only to recruit 25 new men of color a year, but to retain them, as well as the other men of color we already have in our school district,” he says.

To kick off their recruiting efforts, Davis and the district reached out to Clemson University’s Call Me MISTER® program. This initiative aims to recruit male students of color to become elementary school teachers, especially in South Carolina’s lowest-performing schools and underserved communities. “In our first year of recruitment, we were able to hire 23 men of color,” Davis tells us.

Since the Premier 100 Initiative also launched during the global pandemic, sacrifices had to be made until in-person events could start up again. “We had planned for a practitioner’s conference for young men of color and current teachers,” Davis says. “It would have been specifically about teaching and being an authentic male of color in the classroom. We weren’t able to do it last year, but we’re planning to in 2021.” Davis hopes to eventually host a national conference, so teachers and students of color from all over the country can interact with practitioners and curriculum experts who look like them.

Before the pandemic sent everyone home, however, Richland Two was able to host what Davis calls the Get on the Bus Tour. “We brought all these young men who were in undergraduate programs around the state to our school district,” he explains. Davis and his team put the college students on a bus to a central location, where they hosted a kick-off breakfast before sending them out to different elementary schools around the district. “They got a chance to meet other men of color in the classroom and observe their teaching,” Davis adds. “Then we brought them back for a wrap-up lunch and talked about their experiences. We really wanted them to see what it was like to be in one of our schools, interacting with our students and principals and other teachers.”

For Davis, the responsibility to diversify his staff goes far beyond recruitment numbers—it’s about giving kids the teachers and role models they deserve. “It’s going to be important that we build a network and support system for these young men of color so we can help them be authentic versions of themselves,” he says. “I don’t think you can self-actualize if you are trying to be someone else, and I often feel that teachers of color—African American males in particular—suppress who they really are to try to fit an ideal of what a teacher should look or sound like. I just don’t think that connects or resonates with children.”

Davis shares the story of a middle school math teacher who helped him look past his assumptions and see the value of true authenticity. “When I first met him, he was wearing a hat in the building and had sneakers on,” he says. “And then I go into his classroom to watch him teach, and I’m blown away. He was raw. He had to learn a lot of the pedagogical things, but his connection with the students was something that I could not teach. Watching the students’ performance and how much they loved his class, I realized that authenticity and genuineness are as important to an educator as anything else—particularly if you’re trying to resonate with students of color.”

A Conduit of Blessings

Davis often compares the superintendency to playing one big game of chess on 100 separate boards at the same time. “Every encounter, every situation we’re dealing with, is some sort of strategic move,” he explains. “So you’re trying to anticipate every move, because they all affect one another.” Davis even keeps a real game of chess going daily in his office—against himself. “I’ll come in and do a couple moves every day,” he says. “I try to put myself in difficult situations to figure them out.”

Of course, navigating his district through the COVID-19 crisis for the last year and a half was not the kind of difficult situation Davis could have prepared for. But it has forced him to play a new kind of chess—where the pieces are constantly moving in unpredictable directions and everyone is looking over his shoulder even more than usual. Despite the pressure and stress, Davis sees nothing but hope on the horizon.

“This has at least given us an opportunity to reset and better position ourselves to serve all of our students,” he explains. “COVID-19 shined a steady light on the inequities and systems that don’t work for our students, so I’m excited for the chance to move into a new house, so to speak, and to get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work. We don’t have to practice things the old way anymore, and that gives us the permission and expectation for innovation. It’s time to blow up the old structures and replace them with new practices that will better serve our kids.”

For example, Davis gleaned an important lesson from an impressive uptick in parent attendance at IEP meetings during the pandemic. “The participation from parents has been through the roof,” Davis says. “We never thought about do-
ing the IEP meetings through Zoom, but now a parent doesn’t have to leave their job or take a half day to come and sit down with us.” Instead of missing work, parents and families can meet over video during a lunch hour or break, and because of the built-in time constraints, the meetings tend to stay more on task than before. “I’m excited about those types of things,” Davis says. “They create opportunities for access for those parents who were being left out.”

Davis was one of the first members of his community to get sick from COVID-19 last summer, but when we asked him about it, he steered the conversation toward his team. “Any good leader knows they are only as good as their staff,” he says. “I didn’t always do a very good job of being a sick boss, but I have an all-star team, and they really stepped up for me.”

Even with his staff’s support, Davis only lasted about three days at home sick before he started taking calls and scheduling meetings. “It was driving my wife and my staff crazy because I wasn’t resting like I should have been,” he says. “That’s something I still have to work on.”

Through his tireless work to heighten awareness of inequality and to keep inclusion at the forefront of all the district’s conversations, Davis has already secured a legacy of genuine impact in Richland Two. Over the last four years, he has hired one of South Carolina’s first Diversity and Multicultural Inclusion Officers and led the district to write one of the state’s first equity policies.

Perhaps Davis’ most lasting legacy, though, comes in the form of his mentorship. He’s quick to discuss the many mentors he’s had in his own life, from his grandmother and uncle to Dr. Cheryl Caution-Parker, the former deputy superintendent of Richland Two whom Davis personally asked to be his mentor. And it’s easy to see the impact they’ve had on his leadership style—Davis has devoted his career to fostering the same kind of authenticity and sense of purpose in his students and staff. “I believe we are all created to serve a purpose in this world,” he tells us. “And I think it has to start with your community. I didn’t just want to repair the wrong that was done to me by that high school counselor. I also wanted to be a connector—a conduit of blessings for other people.”

One of the oldest opening moves in chess is called the King’s Gambit. It’s frequently written off as weak, mostly because it leaves the starting player’s king open for later attack. But this is also what makes it such a bold move—the king’s vulnerability changes the character of the entire game.

We don’t have to tell you that Dr. Baron Davis has spent his prolific career making bold moves, taking risks, and sticking his neck out for others. What he’s done for students and budding educators, especially people of color, goes far beyond righting a past wrong. By maintaining a vulnerability that encourages everyone to be their true selves, Davis has proven time and time again that being premier isn’t about knowing all the answers—it’s about being willing to change and evolve for your students and their families. “This role is about transforming the lives of the community you serve,” he says. “You have to be courageous and authentic.”


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