SUMMERVILLE — Joe Pye’s career in education began in 1970 the day he visited the Charleston elementary school where his wife taught to tell her he’d just quit his business job.
As the couple discussed his decision in the hallway, the principal walked by and asked Pye if he’d ever considered teaching.
That day, administrators put him in a classroom as a substitute. By that evening, he had a full-time job offer.
Pye worked at the Charleston school for three years while attaining a master’s in teaching from The Citadel. In 1973 he took what he still considers one of his favorite jobs — as a sixth grade science teacher at Rollings Elementary School in downtown Summerville.
Nearly 50 years later, Dorchester School District 2’s longtime superintendent has an office just one room away from where he encouraged sixth graders to raise their grades from Cs to As so they could join the science club. His window overlooks the lawn where they dressed as their favorite inventors and scientists during the outdoor science fair he held for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.
This is Pye’s last year in the district. He will retire this summer after more than 22 years at DD2’s helm. Kershaw County School District Superintendent Shane Robbins will take his place.
“I’ve enjoyed everything that I have done,” Pye said, noting that in addition to teaching he served as the first principal at Flowertown Elementary, and hired nearly every administrator during his tenure as DD2’s personnel director before becoming superintendent.
“But I’m going to be talking about this job, too,” he added. “This is an awesome job.”
From ‘sit-and-get’ to hands on teaching
When Pye taught in the 1970s, education was undergoing a transition. Teachers were moving from what retired DD2 educator Trudy Zobel calls “sit-and-get” — a style where students would sit at desks with their books while teachers gave a lecture — to more of a hands-on style that had students physically interacting with the material.
Pye embraced the new method. It was one of the things that made Zobel want to work for him when he was principal at Flowertown.
“He was just more interactive with experiments,” Zobel said. “I remember that he had students help him build flower boxes for the front of the school. You get a lot of hands-on learning.”
Pye said the interactive style was one he picked up at the Charleston school where he began.
“I basically started off teaching with groups and moving around, and I didn’t do the ‘sit-and-get,'” Pye said. “And then when I came here … nobody else did that.”
Though he was a science teacher, Pye split the students into groups based on their reading levels. He took extra care to work on reading with students who had the most trouble with it, sometimes reading test questions to them and making sure they understood the material as well as the stronger readers.
Two students in his class during his three years at Rollings were brothers Joseph and Bruce LaVallee, both of whom would go on to work for the district in maintenance. They said Pye became a friend of their family, both when they were students and later, when they were his employees.
Joseph LaVallee, who has a learning disability, said Pye talked other teachers into letting him use a calculator.
“He stood up (for) me when no other teacher would stand up for me at all,” LaVallee said. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Pye, I would never have graduated high school.”
Zobel said many teachers followed Pye to Flowertown to work with him. She was among them, as was theater teacher Kathy Summer, who still teaches in the district.
Pye encouraged Summer to start doing theater at elementary schools. At the time, only high schools had theater programs. Summer said she and Pye built Flowertown’s theater program together, eventually spreading it to other elementary schools throughout the district.
“He’s the guy who led me to all the things I love about my career,” Summer said.
Zobel agreed Pye had a way of inspiring students and teachers alike with his interactive approach and encouraging nature. She remembers he and Summer put together a faculty follies-like event called “Pye’s Pitiful Players” when he was principal at Flowertown, in which teachers would sing or act out skits. At one of the performances, Pye rode an adult tricycle onto the stage wearing a leather jacket while the song “Leader of the Pack” played.
“Always, he’s been the leader of the pack,” Zobel said.
A growing district
In the years since Pye became superintendent, the district has exploded with growth.
In the 2000-01 school year, the district had 16,667 students enrolled, according to numbers DD2 provided to The Post and Courier. Enrollment increased steadily almost every year. By the 2019-20 school year, there were 26,194 students.
In that same time period, the district has built 11 new schools with another set to open in August.
Former Summerville resident Barbara Dingle had three children who attended DD2s schools. One of them is now a teacher in the district.
“People were moving to Summerville because they’d heard of what a great school district (it was),” Dingle said.
The enrollment numbers have decreased during the pandemic, with 25,404 students enrolled this year. But Pye said he expects the growth to begin again soon.
“Now the market’s back and the houses are selling,” Pye said. “And now new tracts of land are getting ready to be developed, thousands of houses on the drawing board. We’re getting ready to explode.”
It was a unique challenge for Pye and other administrators to manage DD2’s growth. Zobel said Pye’s business background helped obtain increased funding and build new schools.
Pye also wanted to preserve the “village” feeling the district had when he began.
“It’s been a problem of mine since being superintendent,” he said. “How do you keep that small-town flavor, how do you keep that community, how do you keep this team concept that we have that we’re all in this together? It’s been hard.”
Education has seen other massive changes in recent decades, from advancements in technology to increased focus on standardized testing, which he feels educators nationally never adequately explained to parents.
“Bridging all new information and technology has allowed us to really dig down deep,” Pye said. “As we learn better, we’ve learned so many tips on how to help kids. Teaching’s really improved as far as strategies and things. All the things that I said I did with groups, that’s the way to teach now.”
The biggest change he’s seen has been the culture, both within the schools and outside.
“When I (started), very few mothers worked outside the home,” he said. “There were very few … single-parent homes. That has increased big time.”
Challenges of the pandemic
Nothing made that increase as apparent as the pandemic. When lockdowns began in spring 2020, it became clear just how many parents relied on the schools not just for their children’s education, but for child care.
Pye himself had a bad case of COVID, but he also admitted that as a hands-on educator, he was out of his element when trying to steer DD2 through distance learning.
“It really bothered me, but we didn’t want to do anything to put kids’ lives at risk either, based on stuff we were being told,” Pye said. “Whether good, bad or indifferent, that’s what we had to go by.”
Even after schools reopened, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t shut down again due to outbreaks among students or teachers. Those changes, along with a national debate over mask policies, had angry parents attending board meetings to argue either for or against COVID policies.
It was frustrating for teachers too. Summer said she is Pye’s biggest fan, but her workload increased, and she knows other teachers have been unhappy.
“Sometimes teachers are thinking, ‘This is unfair, I have much more work on my plate but I don’t have a raise,'” Summer said.
Now, teachers must deal with all the same problems they had before the pandemic, plus close the academic gap caused during years of lockdowns, virtual learning and disrupted schedules. The only way to do that, Pye argues, is through that hands-on approach.
“Technology is the support, it’s to help you in the classroom,” he said. “It’s not to replace your direct teaching.”
As technology and teaching strategies improve, Pye said the challenge now is to more adequately prepare incoming teachers for a job he says is time-consuming and overwhelming, often leading to burnout and high turnover.
“They have these children who have come from all these various backgrounds and different levels, and this teacher’s required to teach all of them, move the whole class forward,” Pye said.
Pye announced his retirement in December, pointing to the pandemic as part of his reason for leaving. But he said DD2 has talented teachers and staff to help students close the learning gaps from the pandemic.
“We ought to be able to hold our own with anybody,” Pye said. “I feel really good about where the district is and where it’s going.”