HBCU Grads, Sorority Sisters making a difference to students in the C.A. Johnson Cluster of Schools

Sixty years ago, an eighth-grade student wrote an essay about his plans for the future. The student was proud of the education that he received in Richland School District One’s C.A. Johnson Cluster of schools, and said that he planned to go out of state to study electrical engineering because the state of South Carolina didn’t offer an opportunity for students like him to major in that field.

That student grew up to pilot the Space Shuttle, and eventually led the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Charles Bolden was raised in Columbia, and attended elementary, middle and high schools in the C.A. Johnson High School cluster. These schools laid the foundation for his achievements, as it did for thousands of other students like him.

Six decades later, the schools in this cluster (Carver-Lyon Elementary, Watkins-Nance Elementary, W.A. Perry Middle, and C.A. Johnson High) are reaffirming their commitment to preparing their students for the future. In addition to producing future history makers, they are making history for a novel reason. All four schools are led by women who have three things in common: they are South Carolina State University graduates, they all have doctorate degrees, and they are all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Carver-Lyons and Watkins-Nance Elementary Schools are led by Dr. Monica Adams and Dr. Linda Norton, respectively. W.A. Perry Middle School is led by Dr. Robin Coletrain, and C.A. Johnson High School is led by Dr. Veronica Scott. The Carolina Panorama Newspaper sat down with these remarkable women to learn more about why they chose to attend an HBCU, how it affected their career paths, and their plans for the cluster.

Dr. Monica Adams – Carver-Lyons Elementary School (Columbia, SC native)

I chose South Carolina State University as my school because that's all I knew. My dad was a proud graduate of South Carolina State University and I grew up at South Carolina State. I was ultimately given a four-year scholarship to major in Education, and I was able to fulfill my dreams.

My dad was my primary inspiration for becoming a teacher. Growing up, I would go out into the neighborhood and see the impact he had on students, because students were always running to him and embracing him. I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I wanted to make that difference.

My goal, as a principal within this cluster, is to help build a foundation so our students will be successful. C.A. Johnson has a strong tradition. I want to keep that strong neighborhood tradition where our students are successful, and where they're able to keep that pride and that respect going on in the neighborhood. And it starts in elementary school. We give that foundation, and not only to provide that foundation for educational success, but also to provide a foundation for our students to be positive citizens in our society.

Going to a HBCU gave me an opportunity to develop connections with people where we're able to count on each other throughout our lifetime because it was like a family feel. For example, Dr. Coletrain actually pledged me. She was my dean of pledgees at SC State. Who would have thought that we would have been working together in the same district in the same field, and in the same cluster, where I would help the students begin their educational career, and she would then help the students in their middle school career?

And Linda (Dr. Linda Norton) and I actually went to two classes together. Who would have thought that we would have been together? Dr. Scott was administering at Keenan when I was going through my doctoral program, and I was able to go to her and get advice on what I needed to do to be successful. So going to a HBCU gives you opportunities to connect with those who you thought you would never be able to connect with, and have those lifelong connections and build those networks.

You know, it's like a family. When you see someone, you're always going to be a SCSU Bulldog. If you don't see anyone for 10 years, when you see each other, it's like you've never skipped a beat.

Dr. Linda Norton, Watkins-Nance Elementary (Santee, SC native)

Since I was a child, I always said that I wanted to be a pediatrician because I wanted to work with kids. Regardless, my mom would constantly say ‘Linda is going to be a teacher.’ I didn’t know that she paid attention, because I would be the child who would pull the TV from the wall and demand that everybody come have a seat so that I can teach all of these things that I thought they should know.

My guidance counselors took us on college tours. But I loved SC State because when the bus pulled up to the gate, we had to wait for the band to cross. And the sound of the band was just everywhere. At the same time, I noticed that in front of the cafeteria, there were people there talking, and it was almost like ‘Do they all just know each other?’ Then I saw adults walking around talking to students. These are the professors, and they're actually not in a classroom - they're out talking to students.

We went to other college campuses, but I kept hearing that band. And I kept seeing those professors walking around campus. So when I had to make a decision, not only did I base it on the fact that I got a scholarship, but it was the fact that when I go to this school, these people are going to talk to me so I won't feel alone. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, so that was comforting.

My major was still initially going to be biology. I went to class and did my work, but my heart wasn't in it. I did it as a ritual because if I didn't go to class, I had to go home. When my friends were doing their homework, I would always jump in and help them. I would say no, let me do this for you. You have a presentation? Do it this way. If you want to teach kids, you have to do it this way.

That summer, they offered a special program where if you took classes, they gave you a grant and you could stay on campus. It was the happiest summer of my life. I changed my major and majored in education. That's when education started for me. And when I did homework, I would work for hours, even if I was finished. I just liked it that much. So I knew my calling was to be a teacher. I knew that I was supposed to help people learn and think. So that meant a lot.

I've been here (at Watkins-Nance Elementary) for three years. It has been the best experience of my 26 years, because I don't have to wait until the end of the year to see if I made a difference. I see the difference I make every day in my kids. What I want people to see is that they are so gifted. They're so talented. They will amaze you. I want them to understand how brilliant they are and that they were born that way. They don't realize that they have this innate ability to do whatever they want to do. When they go out into the world, I want people to see them as being smart. I also want them to be leaders. They're gonna be little Obama's and forever be remembered.

Dr. Robin Coletrain, W.A. Perry Middle School (Lake City, SC native)

Why a HBCU? Like Monica, I had no choice. I actually wanted to go to Howard for undergrad, but everyone in my family who had gone to college had gone to South Carolina State. So my grandparents flat out said no, you’re going to SC State. I was mad for a minute, but once I got there, I was in love. Going to an HBCU was a badge of honor.

Some of the people that I've met, as Monica said, we’re still connected. I had professors that if I didn't make it to class, they would call me to ask ‘Where are you? Your parents have invested too much money.’ I remember one time I got a call to the president's office. My grandmother was sitting there because I had racked up parking tickets and it was time for graduation. She said, ‘Did you really think this little thing was gonna stop you from graduating?’

I've always wanted to be a lawyer, so my undergrad major was political science. I always knew I wanted to serve and help people, but just in a different capacity. I didn't think I would be an educator. When I took the LSAT and applied to different law schools and didn't get in, I should have kept trying. I worked in the private industry for a few years before I went to Howard for grad school. I decided to major in special education. Fifteen years of my career was in special education, both as a teacher and as a consultant. Then I went into administration, and I became a principal.

I always like the underdog. That's why I have this connection to Perry and why I think it is a perfect fit for me. I always tell my kids, ‘When people tell you that you can't do it, don't argue. Just let the work speak for you. When you walk out of here, you're representing your family, you're representing yourself, and you're representing our school in everything that you do. Everybody is watching.’

One of the things about us as principals, we know that we can't just be good. We have a motto that school excellence is the only expectation, and we have to be excellent. We have to walk just a little bit higher, like the drum majors at SC State. We just have to be just a little bit better because we were working to change the image of our cluster. Our cluster was very esteemed, very beloved over the years. It went through some things, and now we are working to get back to that level.

We want our kids to understand that education is very powerful. We want our kids to excel and receive accolades. When we do the work, the accolades will come. But at the end of the day, my vision for my kids at W.A. Perry is to know that they matter and that they have the power within them to change their circumstances. I want them to know that they can have the quality of life that they want, if they're willing to work for it. If they're willing to work for it, there's nothing that they can't have. So when we say that excellence is the only expectation, we want them to know that they can achieve and deserve a seat at the table.

Dr. Veronica Scott, C.A. Johnson High School (Kingstree, SC native)

Why did I choose South Carolina State? Actually, I think South Carolina State chose me. I say that because when I was graduating from high school, I really wasn't sure where I wanted to go. But I knew I had to go somewhere because my mother made it plain, you only have two options: You can't stay in my house for one. And number two, you either going to work or you're going to school. Her goal was for us to go to school. So I went to the guidance counselor, and SC State was the best fit. When I got there, I knew I was in the right place. It was a small school, which was a good fit for me. Everyone kind of knew everyone. And if you didn't know someone, you got to know them.

It was just a great time at South Carolina State. The instructors took a vested interest in you. Your dorm advisor really took care of you. The environment wrapped you with love from everyone. I bleed garnet and blue. I love it. All my education came from South Carolina State.

When I started at South Carolina State, I was a nursing major. I spent a lot of time in the science building, and it was not the best fit. I had to find what was going to be good for me. When I took my PE class, Mrs. Hill was my instructor. She kept talking to me, so I changed my major to health education. I did very well, and that was my calling.

I did my fieldwork at Eau Claire High School. I always wanted to be a part of Richland One. When I went into that classroom and actually started working with the students, especially when the supervising teacher allows you to take over instruction, I knew it was a fit for me. So I knew I was on the right path.

My objectives for CA Johnson High School echoes what the other ladies have said. I’m the last stop before they graduate. My agenda was for these students that we work with, first of all, is to understand that they can do it. They have proven that they can do it. We will continue to fight to move the school back up to its glory days of 70 years ago.

C.A. Johnson is celebrating its 70th year in 2019. We have a big celebration at homecoming this year, and we're calling it "70 Years of Educational Excellence"  -- from the alumni base to our students being trailblazers themselves.

Two years ago, Dr. Coletrain and I went through the Midlands Education Business Alliance. We went through a lot of businesses and industries in this area to learn some things to take back to our institutions to prepare our students to be able to exit the secondary level and to enter the workforce or be prepared to go to the collegiate level.

I tell them all the time that they're in the prime of their lives. We want to make sure that they do everything that they can while they are in high school, because that determines what you're going to do when you leave as far as setting your mindset and setting goals. If you set a good foundation, even though you may get a little twisted on the path, you're going to find your way back to the right location. We teach them good decision making and being productive in whatever they do.

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The women are close friends and are dedicated to working together to educate their students as they move from Pre-K through 12th grade.

“We want to continue to grow and evolve as a CA Johnson cluster,” said Dr. Scott. “I feel blessed to be in the presence of the women here. We collaborate a lot. That's a part of who we are as cluster principals -- and sisters.”

“This is my first year in the cluster,” said Dr. Adams. “I have felt so much love. I've been embraced so much by my sisters. You know, you just feel it -- just like when we were at South Carolina State. We held each other accountable and made sure that we were successful. That same love that was generated at SC State, I still feel it now as I'm entering the sisterhood within this C.A. Johnson cluster.”

The four women share more than a sisterhood within the C.A. Johnson cluster. They also happen to be sorority sisters. All are members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

“We're all sisters,” said Dr. Coletrain. “We're all working for that same kind of common goal. It almost feels strategic in a sense. When we first came in the cluster, there was another young lady who was also a doctor, and she was an AKA – Dr. Turner. So it was almost like the district strategically kind of put us together. And it's so funny that that Monica is coming. She's a doctor, she's an AKA, and we pushed to get her here.”

The women said that their membership in the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority helps focus their desire to serve their students and community.

“As AKA’s. we're always doing service,” said Dr. Norton. “We're always doing things because you have to give. You weren't created just to exist, you were created to make a difference. So with AKA’s, you don't miss a day without understanding what is my role and reflecting on my path as I travel. Who am I supposed to influence so they can understand why they were created? This is why we became a part of this sorority – this is where I know I can make a difference.”

“There is something very unique and special about this cluster,” said Dr. Coletrain. “We are working to advance it. We want to acknowledge the support that we receive from Richland One, and we have the full support for what we're trying to do to advance the schools in the C.A. Johnson cluster.”

“It’s important for the students to also see that we work together,” said Dr. Adams, “because so many people see a community where people are not uplifting others. But for them to see that it's possible for a group of women -- black women -- to have positive relationships with each other, and building each other up, it’s important for our students to see that.”

“It’s a great day to be a part of the C.A. Johnson Cluster,” added Dr. Scott.

(1) comment

Janet Denise Dilworth

What a wonderful story these ladies shared individually about their HBCU experience and the difference and impact it made on their life. Very inspirational, and encouraging because our young generations needs to hear these kind of stories they need that little push of effort and confidence to engage in higher learning. I wished I had someone back in my school years to give me some guidance and on how to prepare yourself when attending college and the history of the institution etc. but reading stories like this one should be a winner when you are making a decision to attend an HBCU and graduate and become successful in your career you can pass the knowledge and your experience to others who wished to further their education.


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