MARION CO, S.C. (WBTW) – If you know anything about Marion County, chances are you’ll know the name of Dr. Kandace Bethea.
Not only is she superintendent of the Marion County School District, but she’s a public service leader in the community she grew up in and now calls home.
“It is a special place – just a family-friendly oriented community. Everyone knows everyone and it’s just so full of hope,” Bethea said when we asked her what makes Marion County so special.
That passion and desire to make her community a better place to live, work, and learn are just two of the many reasons why she’s considered a “Remarkable Woman” in the Pee Dee.
“Dr. Bethea gives so much of her time to our community,” wrote Georgette Washington, who nominated her as a Remarkable Woman. “Not only is she our superintendent, but she also works diligently in our community. Very few employees can say that they have a superintendent that puts their staff at the top of the list.”
Her passion started young
Bethea is quick to tell you that her passion for education is simply in her blood. That’s because her mother, too, was an educator. She learned very early on just how easy it was to fall in love with learning and the special bond educators have while she was in elementary school. She found they’re a group that supports each other – and their families – through thick and thin.
“I remember around fifth or sixth grade, my mother got very ill,” she recalled. “That year, the teachers at my school – they just surrounded me. They took me in. They made sure there was nothing that I did not go without, and I think that’s when I really started saying, ‘Hey. This is a job of passion. A job with a heart.”
That realization was the springboard that launched her curiosity that eventually led her to join a teacher cadet program in high school. She says that experience sealed the deal for her future.
“The most important things happen (inside) the doors of that classroom,” she said.
Impacting hundreds across South Carolina
Bethea’s spent the past 24 years in public education in South Carolina, first starting as an elementary teacher in Lexington Two. She has also served in administration roles in Richland, Sumter and Marion counties.
Prior to serving as the superintendent of Marion County schools, she served as as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Marion School District One and as the Deputy Superintendent of the consolidated Marion County School District.
We asked her why she wanted to come home and her answer was simple.
“Just seeing people in your own community, and the place you call home, progressing and doing well and knowing you’re playing a role in that is so important. And that was important to me,” she said.
Regardless of the role she was in, Bethea had two simple goals of the impact she wanted to make.
“My commitment has always been that when a child leaves my classroom door – one, they know that I love them. Secondly, they know that I have helped them to grow in some kind of way and that I truly cared about them,” she explained. “Children do not choose the circumstances to which they are born, and so we must learn to love them all and must learn to teach them all. That has been my commitment, that regardless of zip codes, regardless of home lives, we pour into them and give them as much as we can during the time that we have with them.”
Conquering COVID-19 challenges
Just like any school administrator, teacher or staff member, Bethea is quick to admit adapting to the new reality of the “COVID-19 era” has been a challenge. However, it’s one her district is conquering and overcoming. She credits that to making sure the varying needs of students are met and district staff feel empowered.
“It’s hard for everyone right now. It’s hard for teachers. It’s hard for administrators. It’s hard for our students. It’s hard for families, and having a sense of empathy and understanding the various dynamics that may be affecting individuals – people have been affected by this virus in so many different ways,” she said.
Bethea says that flexibility has uncovered several access gaps in her district that leaders are working hard to close.
“When we physically closed our doors, but opened them virtually, kids with connectivity issues. (We made) sure that we accommodate them. Make sure that they still had an equal level or an adequate level of instruction, whether it’s through instructional learning packets. Teachers have put together baggies, schools have done drive-thrus to pick up materials, and things of that nature,” Bethea recalled.
In hindsight, she says she is proud of the phenomenal job of her district’s teachers, staff and leaders.
“I often say that I’ve had a front row seat over this last year of just seeing a phenomenal group of educators that have just adapted for the best interest of their children, and going above and beyond the call of duty,” she said with a smile on her face.
She says that’s why she tries each day to lead by example – and it’s a reason she was nominated as a Remarkable Woman.
Giving back outside of the classroom
While COVID-19 has kept her on her heels professionally, it’s helped her focus her priorities outside of the classroom.
And her guiding faith has played a big role in that.
“I truly believe that one of the things that are expected of us is helping each other – helping your fellow man. there are many people right now during this pandemic that are just dealing with things they’ve never imagined,” Bethea said.
Bethea’s husband leads the congregation at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Mullins. She says outside of the classroom, she just wants to be a support system for her personal family and for her church family. That includes a weekly soup kitchen, that like many things in the pandemic, had to regroup its operations. Each Tuesday, the community is able to pick up a “grab and go” food bag at the church.
“It’s important for our children to see (that) my husband and I are both givers. I often say I think we’re so blessed because we don’t focus just on self – that we are constantly focusing on others,” she said.
Bethea is also actively involved with the youth at Mt. Olive and often attends out-of-school functions so she can communicate and connect with students and their families on a personal level.
“It’s good for the students to see that you are a normal person as well,” she said. “If they have recreational activities, I try to support them at home. One of my all-time favorites – many of our students go to the skating rink Sunday afternoons. So sometimes I find myself (there) after a busy week. I love going there and seeing the kids doing their tricks on their skates and what have you.
The biggest lesson she wants to teach
Bethea believes that God gives each person different talents and abilities – and every single person has something to offer the world. She especially believes that when talking about the hundreds of children, teachers and staff members she helps lead in Marion County.
“Their futures are bright. The possibilities are endless,” she said with a smile on her face. “So often students look at their current circumstances and they let that limit what they strive to do in the future.”
She said that before using herself as an example.
“I just serve as an example – someone raise din a home with a mother and a grandmother. That is very non-traditional. Most people will just automatically assume that I grew up in this regular home with the traditional description of family. Regardless of your family structure, regardless of your social (and) economic level – the possibilities are endless.”
With that in mind – and that message she wants to help spread across Marion County – she thinks anyone can continue the legacy of greatness coming out of her Pee Dee community.
“You have to celebrate the small successes. That helps you get closer to the larger successes, in my opinion. It’s very important to just constantly pour into others and making sure that when our students don’t know how to tap into their own potential, that we help them tap into the potential until they’re able to do it themselves,” she said.
Bethea can’t wait to see that potential create big, positive change.