Mary Runyon is not the retiring type. Far from it.
So when she told her staff at West Ashley High School recently that she was stepping down, many expected the tiny dynamo with a shock of white hair was leaving for good.
She is. Leaving. For good. The greater good.
Instead of being in charge of a single West Ashley school, Runyon is leaving for a job where she can touch the lives and education of every kid this side of the river, kindergarten through seniors in high school.
Runyon has accepted a job, beginning June 1, that puts her in charge of all of the curriculum at all the public schools in this part of town through the District 10 Constituent District office.
While there are federal, state, and county guidelines for curriculum, what must be taught, she says there’s a series of school-by-school decisions of how that is taught, the way curriculum is implemented. That gives her a lot or leeway.
According to Runyon, she wants to extend an educational pipeline from colleges and other post-secondary education options, all the way down to the youngest kids in the smallest elementary classroom.
Runyon has been at the helm at WAHS since 2007 while that school went through a culture shift, from being the “red-headed stepchild” of local schools, to a place where advanced learning happens.
Three years ago, 79 Advanced Placement tests were administered to West Ashley students. Two years ago, that number grew to 96 AP tests. In 2013, the number had leapt to 179.
That’s better than a 225 percent increase in AP tests administered in just three years. This year, there were 387 requests for spots in AP classes.
While that doesn’t mean nearly 400 students are taking AP classes, as many of the more serious students will double and triple up on the college-level classes, it shows something serious is happening.
Students graduating in the 2014 class will attend every school from Trident Technical College to Duke University to Clemson University to University of Chicago to University of South Carolina to West Point to College of Charleston to Brown to Stanford and Yale, and all points in between.
That’s not to say she only tailored her efforts to the high-achievers. Runyon points with equal pride to the program linking local industry, Trident, and WAHS, where students can double up on classes and learn a trade at a paid job, earning an associate’s degree by high school graduation.
A school with a weak reputation when she took over, Runyon’s very proud that her advanced academy inner-school has spawned a host of college credit classes that include many AP classes: environmental health, language, biology, chemistry, psychology, geography, literature, calculus, and statistics.
The year after Runyon took over WAHS, 2008, the state gave the school an “absolute rating” of “average.” It dropped to “below average” two years later, and up to “good” in 2012.
“We’re just a skooch below ‘excellent’ this year,” says school spokesperson Donnie Newton.
The growth score, which tracks student achievement relative to where they started, went from “at-risk” in 2010 to “excellent” in 2011.
Runyon says her new goal, her new job, her new passion, will be to extend that educational pipeline so that kids can receive an excellent education at every school in the district, “and no longer depend on which school they’re zoned for or count on lotteries” to get into the county district’s various charter and magnet schools.
The first step, says Runyon, a thesis short of her doctorate in education, will be shepherding the combination of St. Andrews and West Ashley middle schools on the campus of the latter school.
In addition to her job in charge of curriculum, Runyon has accepted the position as the “project manager” for the merger of the two beleaguered schools.
So, don’t get it twisted. Mary Runyon isn’t retiring. She isn’t abdicating.
“I’m advocating,” she says with a soft Southern accent that doesn’t detract from the steel behind her tone.

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