Published on December 23rd, 2014 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
District Five Board Vice Chairman Robert Gantt takes on new role, keeps same passion for public education
Pictured; District Five Board Vice Chairman Robert Gantt is surrounded by students as he visits his daughter’s fourth grade classroom in December.
IRMO – For Robert Gantt, his 30-plus years in public education leadership roles can be summed up with a few simple words: “I love schools and the kids inside.”
It’s a passion for education six decades in the making that has led him to serve 14 years as an elected School Board member with Lexington-Richland School District Five and countless years in various other school capacities, from School Improvement Council chair at three schools to a volunteer bus driver for athletic teams.
Now the District Five Board Vice Chairman is taking on an additional role. Gantt was installed as president of the South Carolina School Boards Association on Dec. 6, a new and highly visible post he hopes to utilize to grow support for public education.
“I have a one-year shot at this, but I hope that we can have an even stronger support of our public schools,” said Gantt, showing a red SCSBA ‘Stand Up 4 SC Public Schools’ bracelet. “I really hope we can be really strong advocates…we need to have lawmakers hear our views on funding and on bringing everyone up to a level that is in the best interest of all students.”
Gantt’s positive view of schools and public educators began 60 years ago with his first grade teacher, Mrs. Whitesides. Attending Central Elementary School in the tight-knit community of Rock Hill, Gantt remembers vividly how all the activities seemed to center around his elementary school and how Mrs. Whitesides made a lasting impression on how he viewed school for years to come.
“I fell in love with my first grade teacher, Mrs. Whitesides …I just thought the sun rose and set on her,” Gantt joked. “I remember enjoying school at an early age, not only because of Mrs. Whitesides but also because school was a big part of my life. My mother was a homeroom mom, and my dad would help with some of the activities…I think it’s a big part of the fabric of America, and I spend my time now defending public schools because I love them.”
In 1972, Gantt and his wife, Laura Smith Gantt, moved to Irmo and immediately noted the community’s growth and history of having top schools. When he became a parent, he modeled his own parents’ views on schools and became increasingly involved.
“When my oldest daughter started school, I realized then how much I had missed being in public schools,” Gantt said. “I started volunteering as much as I could just to be in schools and be around the students.”
Gantt says he was elected in 2000 to the Lexington-Richland District Five School Board, where there was a positive climate for public schools in the district. “Hopefully, some of the decisions and actions I have participated in as a Board member has had that same positive impact for students and the community.”
Gantt said he remained on the board to bring stability to the district’s leadership, which at one time had several changes in superintendents. He also wanted to help oversee the district’s 2008 Bond Referendum, which now has resulted in major facilities upgrades in District Five.
Another reason Gantt cites for staying involved is his support of students. “We have amazing students in District Five and throughout the state of South Carolina,” he said. “There are many positive things going on in public schools, and we have so much to celebrate every day.”
In mid-December at Leaphart Elementary School, students gathered around Gantt as he showed a video on the role of school boards and school leaders. Questions were allowed as students realized the key role their guest speaker plays in leading schools, and Gantt was quickly bombarded with inquiries from the fourth grade class.
“Can we bring pets to school?” one student asks.
“Strawberry milk…can we have that in the cafeteria?” another student probes.
Gantt is used to these types of questions. He is in the schools often, visiting classes as well as his granddaughter’s third grade class at River Springs Elementary to read and have lunch with Laura Katherine.
He visits his two daughters’ classrooms, too. They are teachers in District Five, while another is a doctor who teaches as a physician educator. For all three daughters, their father was a constant presence in their educational journey and a big reason they all valued education.
“My motivation for becoming an educator I, without question, attribute to my own experiences in our district’s schools with my dad always by my side,” said Laura Jane Gantt, a fourth grade teacher at Leaphart Elementary. “Whether it was to drive me and my sisters to school in the mornings, help me with homework (science fair projects were our favorite), volunteer in the classroom or coming to eat lunch with me; he always has been and still is the biggest supporter of my educational career, first as a student and now as a teacher. It is the neatest and most wonderful blessing in the world.”
Elizabeth Perla, a teacher at Spring Hill High School, added: “My dad has been there for my first day of school for my entire career, as a parent taking me to school then as a parent helping me set up my room for my students each year. He does this so that he can help make sure that the students get off to a good start. His whole goal is to play a positive role in education…that really is the reason for all he does for schools.”
Dr. Katherine Gettys said her father both demonstrated and talked about the importance of education, taking pride in the fact that his three daughters are today carrying on that legacy. “He would be happy for us to do anything that we loved to do…but I feel like his love of education, his passion for it, talking about it at home and being at the school helped us know how important it was to give back through teaching.”
He does it for the “right reasons” his daughters all agreed. And though his enthusiasm for public education started 60 years ago in Rock Hill with Mrs. Whiteside, Gantt says the feeling he gets when he enters a classroom is still the same.
“The same feeling I got when I went to school in first grade is the same feeling I have now,” Gantt said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been 60 years since I started school or 30-plus years since I became a school leader. I enjoy it, and I enjoy being a part of the process of making sure our students have the same experience I did. In the end, I hope I will be able to make a difference for children.”