Home-grown educator: Superintendent’s passion is helping students rise above potential
FLORENCE, S.C. – After graduating from Lake City High School in 1979, Florence County School District Three Superintendent Laura Hickson went on to South Carolina State University with the intent of becoming a nurse.
Hickson knew she wanted to serve and help others, but she had no idea at the time that she would fulfill that passion as an educator.
“So my intent when I left was to go into nursing, and instead I ended up taking a sociology class at State where we had to do a research paper,” Hickson said. “And I remember doing that research paper on the impact of the family on grades.”
And after Hickson completed the paper, her instructor wanted her to present the research to his graduate class.
“And I think that’s what got me turned around, and I decided to major in education,” she said.
Hickson said her father always said she would become a teacher. As a child, Hickson said she would play school with her seven siblings. Being the oldest girl, she would always play the role of teacher.
While she was a student at South Carolina State University, Hickson completed her student-teaching assignment at Main Street Elementary School in Lake City. After graduating, she started out teaching compensatory math in a Title I, or high poverty, program.
“I started out with second- and third- and fourth-graders,” Hickson said. “But even working with those second-, third- and fourth-graders, I always did more because I just felt as if it was my calling. And it was just a passion of mine just to work with others, particularly children, particularly those that don’t have.”
Hickson said she is a believer in helping students rise above their potential. And she said she thinks she is so passionate about that, because many of her peers said she would not even go to college.
“They were looking at my situation,” Hickson said. “I grew up in a poor family. Grew up poor. My dad did not exceed second grade, because his parents died and he had to work. My mom went as far at the 11th grade. So I was a first-generation college student.”
Many times, when children are faced with challenges, the low expectations around them can make them think they can’t do whatever it is they want to do, Hickson said.
“And I do believe there’s success in every student,” she said. “Every child is destined for success. And I think if we can just identify the child’s talents and really focus on those talents and their strengths, we can help them overcome a lot.”
Hickson taught for 15 years at schools in Lake City, Olanta, Timmonsville, Williamsburg County, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. She said the relationships she built were the common ingredient for reaching students at each place she taught.
“And I believe if we would develop those positive relationships, it’s going to improve the culture in our schools, and it’s definitely going to make that culture a safer culture,” Hickson said.
After teaching for 15 years, Hickson served as an assistant principal and then principal. She served for six years as principal at J. Paul Truluck Middle School in Lake City before taking a district office position as the director of accountability. She was in charge of the district’s federal programs.
As accountability director, Hickson started the district’s Parent Academy. The program served approximately 30 parents the first year but has since served more than 300 parents, including those who attend the annual back-to-school conference.
“The goal of the parent academy is to train and give parents tools that they can use at home to help support what we’re doing here in school and to help their child be successful,” Hickson said.
When Hickson started as accountability director, Linda Hair became her assistant. Hair said she served in that role for eight years but now works as the district’s Title I coordinator.
“The one thing I can say through my years of working with her (Hickson) is that her desire to do what is best for the students has always been first and foremost,” Hair said. “Her desire to create a good environment and invitational environment for parents and develop an interaction with parents has always been important to her.”
Hickson served as District Three’s assistant superintendent before becoming the superintendent. Being in her current position has opened doors for Hickson to put programs in place to establish equity, she said.
“I wanted to place programs in place so that students who feel as if they’re disadvantaged can see that college is possible,” Hickson said. “Because we once did a survey, and there were a lot of kids who felt college was impossible for them. And I know when you’re in a situation and you have so many obstacles and family challenges, sometimes it looks that way.”
This school year, District Three was able to start new pathways for students and choices for parents with the implementation of two new creative arts and science magnet schools. An early college program was also started under Hickson’s leadership.
“We have a cohort of juniors who in two years, they’ll march across the stage not just with their high school diploma; they’ll have their associate’s degree,” Hickson said. “Which, prior to me getting this position ... a lot of folks didn’t think that would happen.”
The district’s major focus is ensuring students are ready for college or careers once they graduate. For the first time, Hickson said District Three has a cohort of students in the Florence-Darlington Technical College’s welding and childcare programs. The district takes the students to and from the college.
“We’ve got to do whatever it takes for our students to, one, realize their potential and to help them reach their goals,” Hickson said.
Lake City is where Hickson grew up, and it is where she and most of her family still live. She said she feels blessed and honored to serve as the superintendent in her hometown.
“So this work I do is not for Laura,” Hickson said. “It’s all about the calling that I truly believe God has given to me. And it’s about making a difference in the lives of others.”