Profile

Personal Adversity, Professional Excellence

by PAUL RIEDE

When Phinnize "Penny" Fisher was 12, her mother died of stomach cancer. A year later, her father died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage.

But Fisher was not left without guidance. Her mother had instilled in her a spiritual grounding, taking her to church every Sunday and revivals at night. Her father, a blue-collar worker at a nickel-plating company, was a strict taskmaster, passing down his own work ethic to her.

Penny FisherPenny Fisher


When they died, family and community came together to complete her upbringing. An older sister took her in. One high school teacher drove her to school and back every day, and another took her to visit his alma mater, St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va.

The result: Fisher left Lynchburg, Va., as high school salutatorian, graduated from St. Paul's at 20 and went on to earn her master's and doctorate at Rutgers University. She is now superintendent of the largest school district in South Carolina and was one of four finalists for the 2011 National Superintendent of the Year award.

"She certainly found a way to excel in the face of adversity, and maybe that gives her the confidence that every child can succeed," says Tommie Reece, a board member and former board president of the 69,800-student Greenville County School District in northwestern South Carolina.

Reece and others say Fisher's inclusive style has united the district and community with a single focus: "If anybody comes up with an idea, her first question is always, 'OK, how will that help our students in instruction?'"

Every year since she became superintendent in 2004, she has had a video produced to introduce a unifying theme for the year. Two years ago, as districts across the country plunged into economic uncertainty, Fisher used an inspirational quote to set the tone: "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain."

In that video, she briefly channeled Tina Turner, lip-synching lyrics from her song "I Can't Stand the Rain."

"I was dancing a little bit," admits Fisher, 63. "I have a little movement."

In her seven years atop Greenville County, Fisher has moved the district forward in a number of ways. She oversaw most of the renovation or new construction of 70 school buildings in a massive renewal effort. She focused more resources on closing the achievement gap in a diverse district with a 48 percent poverty rate, decreasing class sizes in schools with high poverty and expanding preschool, after-school and summer programs.

And she was the driving force behind the district's new A.J. Whittenberg Elementary, a hands-on school with an engineering curriculum and after-school programs coordinated with the nearby Salvation Army Kroc Center. The school was the first built in downtown Greenville since integration.

Developer Robert E. Hughes Jr., who oversaw the building project, says the Whittenberg school is emblematic of Fisher's vision. He said the school helped not only schoolchildren but the revitalization of the city as a whole.

"She's not in the silo of education," he says. "She thinks about the role of education in the community."

Fisher says her academic initiatives are based on the idea of acceleration rather than remediation.

But she also believes that despite budget crunches and back-to-basics sentiment, schools should continue to emphasize quality arts and sports programs. She is an ardent supporter of the district's Fine Arts Center, where high schoolers can focus on the arts by spending half their days there and half at their home schools.

"I try to make sure we maintain those things that connect students to learning and education," she says. "I just feel that we're trying to graduate a whole person."

Paul Riede is a staff writer at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com

BIO STATS: PENNY FISHER

Currently: superintendent, Greenville County, S.C.

Previously: chief of staff, Greenville County

Age: 63

Greatest influence on career: Patrick Parenty, who served as superintendent in Plainfield, N.J., during part of my 17 years in that district, encouraged and mentored me. He saw my potential and gave me countless opportunities to broaden my horizons. He also placed me on state-level committees.

Best professional day: On Oct. 26, 2010, The Greenville News endorsed all five school board members running for re-election. The editorial board based its decision on our increased academic success and our handling of budget cuts. In part, the editorial said: “The board also is working well with the district’s administrative team led by Dr. Phinnize Fisher. This stable relationship between the trustees and administrative staff allows our schools to avoid disruptive and paralyzing arguments that do nothing to advance public education in Greenville County.”

Books at bedside:Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and Schools Cannot Do It Alone by Jamie Vollmer

Biggest blooper: Having worked for eight years in Greenville County before I became superintendent in Greenville County, I thought I knew all of the middle and high school principals and all 50 elementary principals. One day I visited an elementary school principal and called him by another principal’s name during the entire visit. It wasn’t until several years later he jokingly told me of my gaffe.

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA provides me with a network of colleagues who have diverse experiences and expertise on which I can call.