We’ve had some great things happen in the system but it’s been because of everyone. It takes a joint effort to make these things happen.Dr. Randy Shearouse
SPRINGFIELD — There wasn’t a hint of pomp and circumstance associated with the graduation that occurred recently at the Effingham County Board of Education office.
Dr. Randy Shearouse simply closed the door on his successful Effingham County career and trained his eyes on a new horizon.
“I think I’ve probably spent more time looking ahead to the challenges (than reflecting on the past),” he said May 27 while cleaning out his Effingham County superintendent’s office.
Shearouse’s next challenges are in Limestone County Schools in Athens, Ala., where he was unanimously elected superintendent in February. He reported for duty Monday, just three days after retiring here.
“I need to hit the ground running because, just like here, there are a lot of decisions to make,” he said.
Bordered to the north by Tennessee, Limestone County is situated near Hunstville in one of the fast-growing areas of Alabama. Many of its 99,000 residents are employed by the Army, NASA or defensive contractors.
Limestone County schools serve approximately 8,700 students and employ around 1,100 faculty and staff with an annual budget of more than $94 million. The system is composed of six 6-12 schools, seven K-5 elementary schools, one 3-5 elementary school, one K-2 primary school, one Career Technical Center, one online school (Alabama Connections Academy) and the Limestone County Alternative School.
Shearouse, the 2019 recipient of the Georgia Association of Education Leaders’ Jim Puckett Outstanding Educator Award, spent more than three decades in the Effingham County School District, including 15 years as superintendent. The former teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal succeeded Dr. Michael Moore in July 2005.
During his superintendent stint, Effingham County’s enrollment grew from 9,200 students to more than 13,000. In addition, test scores, graduation rates and college participation soared, making the district a drawing card for potential residents.
“It’s nice to hear from the political folks that people move here for the school system,” Shearouse said. “You hear that with the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce, the IDA (Effingham County Industrial Development Authority) and so forth, and we don’t take that for granted. We want to have a great school system that people want to send their kids to.”
Shearouse thinks the Effingham County Board of Education has made the most out of its resources.
“I think our school facilities are great across the board, and we are not a wealthy district,” he said. “I think sometimes we lose sight of that because we have been able to do a lot with the ESPLOST, which is coming up again on a referendum on June 9. We have been able to do a lot with that penny sales tax.”
Shearouse said the current ESPLOST has almost paid for two-year-old Rincon Elementary School, which cost $20 million.
“So we don’t have any long-term debt in the district, which I think puts us in really good shape in the next couple years with the downturn in the economy (because of COVID-19),” he said.
South Effingham Elementary School will be able to accommodate an additional 200 children this fall because of an ongoing wing addition.
“We’ve been able to plan for growth and handle growth without creating a lot of unecessary debt on the county, and there are a lot of people to thank for that,” Shearouse said. “Slade Helmly has been in charge of our facilities for a long time and he really had the foresight to plan a lot of that out.”
Shearouse’s final two months at the helm in Effingham County will likely be his most memorable because of the ongoing pandemic. On March 18, Gov. Brian Kemp ordered all Georgia public schools closed and Effingham County students received online lessons until instruction ended May 1.
Shearouse lauded the way students, parents, teachers, administrators and technology workers adapted, allowing learning to continue during the crisis.
“Moving forward, if we have to do this in the future and this is part of the new norm at times, we will get better,” he said.
Shearouse also expressed pride in the way the School Nutrition Department stepped up to feed thousands of students during the early stages of the pandemic. Its workers delivered meals to several pickup spots throughout the county.
“When everyone else was shut down, they didn’t take off,” Shearouse said. “Those lunchroom ladies were working, and the same thing for the bus drivers who were delivering the meals. I think that just shows you what kind of commitment they have to our district.”
Commencement at Effingham County and South Effingham high schools was adversely impacted by the virus, too. Instead of hosting large events at their football stadiums, the schools conducted drive-through ceremonies in their parking lots, handing out a few diplomas at a time.
“I was glad for me but also the seniors and their parents that we were able to have them,” Shearouse said. “I thought it was personal. I thought the parents had a front-row seat, really.”
Shearouse credited Principals Amie Dickerson (Effingham County) and Dr. Torian White (South Effingham) for forming and executing the graduation plans.
“We got some good comments about (the ceremonies,)” Shearouse said. “I know it wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t graduation on the field, but I think our high school principals really came together and made those events memorable. Everything just flowed right through.
“It took awhile but that’s OK. It was something that we wanted to do for our seniors that did work out and I’m really glad that I got to hand out diplomas one last time.”
Since Shearouse didn’t get to address the seniors and their parents in the usual way at a stadium, he provided a virtual message. Not surprisingly, his words centered on embracing challenges with enthusiasm instead of disdain and dread.
That was a recurring theme during many of his earlier commencement speeches.
“I think, in our lives, more positive things happen then negative,” he said. “We dwell on the negative sometimes, especially the national headlines, and that makes it easy to get down. You’ve got to look at everything because there are so many positives going on.
“... Don’t let the bad news stories get you down because there are three times as many good news stories that we can get excited about and just embrace.”
There have been countless positives for the Effingham County during the last 15 years. Shearouse referenced Honey Ridge Plantation as one example.
“(South Effingham Salutatorian Katlyn Davis) is going to go to Georgia and become a (veterinarian),” he said. “She credited Honey Ridge Plantation for kind of helping her develop that passion.”
The plantation, purchased by the Effingham County Board of Education during the 2016-17 school year, is a 325-acre farm that includes areas for a wide variety of learning opportunities featuring animal health sciences, agriculture, forestry and more.
“(Davis) is also in the Work-Based Learning Program, and we have a huge one where our kids get out and experience on-the-job training,” Shearouse said.
The superintendent, whose successor is Dr. Yancy Ford, also noted the impact that Effingham County students have had in the medical field.
“Our healthcare programs at both high schools and the career academy are tremendous,” he said. “I think we miss that sometimes because maybe they don’t get the recognition 10 years out (following graduation).
“I think it’s important to take a look at how successful our students have been in so many different areas.”
Sports and other extracurricular activites are also important to Shearouse. He stressed their ability to develop a work ethic, teamwork and the ability to get along with others.
“Those are really important things that help you in life,” he said.
Ultimately, this is what an education is all about, he said.
“That’s what motivates me, bringing about the best opportunites that we can for students in Effingham County,” he said. “Whatever they want to do (for a living), we want to be able to make that happen and them be excited about it.”
Shearouse wasn’t interested in taking credit for student successes in Effingham County.
“People are so kind,” he said. “We’ve had some great things happen in the system but it’s been because of everyone. It takes a joint effort to make these things happen.”