KNOW(2) Cherokee: Community-Built Education

When a county finds itself near the bottom in the educational rankings in a state thats low in the national rankings, doing nothing is not an option—or at least it was not an option that Cherokee County Commissioner Oscar Fuller was willing to consider. Such an intractable problem requires a willingness to try a radically different approach and a commitment to the long haul of small, incremental improvements, and Cherokee County has made that commitment with KNOW(2).


In 2009 a task force was set up to evaluate community indicators of the county. They concluded that five areas needed attention: education, crime/safety, family/youth, public health, and economic development. But these are not stand-alone issues: Education underpins all of the others, and so county officials decided to act on it.


So what is KNOW(2), exactly? Its aim is to change attitudes towards education at every level of a community, with the emphasis on these two points:


  1. I KNOW that I must be highly educated for economic success and high quality of life.

  2. I KNOW that being highly educated is achievable by me, my family, and my community.

Fuller is now retired, and Robin Reed, formerly the assistant project director, is now the executive director. She emphasizes that KNOW(2) has become much broader than education in the classroom since its inception.


Education at All Ages

In 2012, when KNOW(2) was to receive a grant of $185,000 to make higher education a priority, Mr. Fuller said, We cannot improve the economy in Cherokee County unless we improve the education levels of our residents.” That means adult education, it means increasing the numbers of high school graduates who go on to higher education—but it also means emphasizing literacy and reading readiness in homes with infants and small children.

 

The program is a multifaceted approach, hitting the problem from a variety of angles. Starting from birth, KNOW(2) works with pediatric offices in the county to give books to parents of newborns, and the support continues with reading programs in elementary school, Junior Achievement in middle school, on through to college, with a mentoring program for first-generation college students, who are often at risk of dropping out.

 

Recently, a growing awareness of the number of senior citizens who are raising their grandchildren has created a new focus on senior citizens in Cherokee County. “There are things they need to know about parenting in 2017 that they didn't need to know when they were parenting their own children,” Reed says, so KNOW(2) will be working with senior centers to provide help.

Education and Careers

A business incubator in Cherokee County may seem far removed from the stated educational goals of KNOW(2), but it is under the KNOW(2) umbrella, and a junior entrepreneurship club at Gaffney High School has launched two student-run businesses. Entrepreneurs in the incubator work with high school students, and they hope to expand to Blacksburg High School as well.

The crime and safety team of the group is working with local law enforcement, and a scholarship program for minority students who are interested in a career in law enforcement has been established. Additionally, a gap scholarship program funded by the county and administered by KNOW(2) assists students who go to college for specific fields of study that are related to local industry. And a plant managers forum provides a link between local business and industry and the schools.

Community Support

The progress that has been achieved in Cherokee County is largely due to broad community support, which can be attributed to Fuller’s influence: “Oscar is able to rally people to a cause, bringing together political, religious, and education leaders and state agencies and nonprofits,” Reed says.

The initiative would not be successful without volunteers called “neighborhood ambassadors” who sign up to do after-school tutoring for reading and math, provide older students help with completing financial aid and college applications, and assist in other ways.  


Local businesses can be seen promoting KNOW(2) on their signs, and the Gaffney Ledger runs roughly one story a week on KNOW(2), Reed says. And each year, the community gathers for an event called Campo Giorno di Cherokee: Elementary school students compete academically and accumulate points during the school year, and then at the end of the school year, they compete in athletic events held in the Gaffney High School football stadium, marching in by school, much like the parade of nations at the Olympics.


None of this is going to breed success overnight, but Reed says there are already measurable improvements: Students who have taken advantage of the KNOW(2) scholarship are all employed now, and none were before. There are improved numbers on students going on to college. “Cherokee County has been classified as distressed, so we had a long way to go,” Reed says. It will take generations to get where we need to be, but we are seeing improvement.

 

This Saturday (May 13), The Big E in Gaffney is holding a mini-golf tournament from noon to 3:00 p.m. to benefit KNOW(2). The entry fee is $10 for individuals and $20 for teams. Sign up by Thursday, May 11 to play. Contact KNOW(2) for more information.

 

This article has been updated. Photos courtesy of KNOW(2).

 

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.

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