Lessons shared as remarkable Lowcountry education career ends tonight

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 23, 2013 

John D. Rogers Jr.

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Thomas Heyward Academy headmaster John D. Rogers Jr. says the seniors graduating from his school tonight are as good as any he has seen in 47 years in education.

The top two students will get full scholarships to study pre-medicine.

But today's graduates face a crumbling American culture, Rogers said -- one hampered by too few positive role models, not enough jobs, and adults unwilling to accept that there is a right and a wrong, and that wrong must be punished.

It will be the 37th -- and last -- graduation ceremony for Rogers as head of the 331-student private school in Ridgeland. Now 71, Rogers arrived in the Lowcountry a dogged, 6-foot-3 competitor in basketball, tennis and golf. Tonight he will push back white hair as he gives the commencement address, and so will end a remarkable run. The school has named its gymnasium for him and given him a golf cart he can enjoy at his home at Pleasant Point on Lady's Island.

Rogers grew up the son of a salesman in Columbia, graduated from The Citadel in 1965 and took his first job at the old Bluffton High School. He and four buddies were going to teach a year to raise money for a trip to Europe, then go to law school. They went to Europe, but Rogers returned to the classroom in Ridgeland. In his nine-year public school tenure as a teacher, basketball coach, athletics director, assistant principal and principal, he witnessed a peaceful integration in Jasper County.

I was on the faculty when Rogers took the Thomas Heyward job in 1976. On Thursday, we chatted about education and society after he attended a board meeting at the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.

"It's a hurried generation," he said. "With technology, children are always wanting more, more, more, more, more. They've got to get in the best schools, get the best jobs, work, work, work, work. Well, that's always been the case, but it was usually done in an era of stable homes and plenty of jobs. Opportunities abounded.

"That's the difference I see. Culturally, we're a mess. But their character -- the students I deal with -- and their effort level is phenomenal."

He said too many schools have made the philosophical choice not to kick out the bad eggs so the majority of students can learn. It also would show that there are consequences to bad behavior. Schools are letting the tail wag the dog.

"It gets down to order and respect," said Rogers. "You have disciplinary procedures in place, and you enforce them. It's so simple, it's alarming. Why do you let eight kids stay in there who are pure thugs and destroy the whole thing because of your idea of restorative justice. I mean, come on."

At Thomas Heyward, high school tuition this year was $4,650, low by private school standards but maybe enough to add a higher level of commitment by families to education. Rogers said he would love to have had more money to work with, but money is not society's problem.

He cited the Mississippi sharecropping family introduced to the world by Charles Kuralt more than 30 years ago. Kuralt visited Alex and Mary Chandler on "one of the poorest farms in the poorest part of the poorest state in America." Yet all nine of their children went to college and became professional leaders.

"How does that happen?" Rogers asked. "They were good people. They had high standards."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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