Denise James: A Passion-Fuelled, South Carolina-Based Star Academy Director
After serving in the field of education for more than a quarter of a century, you’d think one would be used to the “status quo” of serving students in K-12 education. But for Denise James, Star Academy Director at Guinyard Butler Middle School, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’m a goofball for school – I really am crazy about it,” Ms. James told us. “There’s nothing like being around students, their energy, and seeing them progress through the year: beginning, middle, and end (of the school year). Seeing them develop as both students and individuals is so energizing and powerful! My passion for education grows each year – it doesn’t dwindle or ‘get old’ to me. I love this work!”
Ms. James’ passion for education and her hometown, Barnwell, is something she comes by honestly-she is a proud Barnwell 45 grad herself. And after her time at Barnwell? Ms. James continued to another beloved South Carolina institution: South Carolina State University. There, she earned her Bachelor, Master, and Specialist of Education degrees.
She always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but her first teaching position surprised even her: Ms. James accepted the role of a math teacher.
“If you had told me as a student that I would one day teach math, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ms. James said. “Math wasn’t my strongest subject. In fact, I even repeated a course in high school because I couldn’t get the hang of it. But that’s why I think no one can teach math like me – I know what it means to struggle, and I know how to get students through the thick of it because I went through it myself.”
Although Ms. James no longer teaches math, she still uses the same principle she did in the classroom as she oversees her school’s Star Academy program: it’s all about connection.
“Regardless of the subject, a teacher has to first focus on connection,” Ms. James told us. “You have to connect with your students first on a personal level: let them know you care about them and that you believe in them and what they’re capable of. Then, you can help them connect to the subject itself. Otherwise, you can find yourself talking to the wall.”
Student connection and empowerment are just two components that make Ms. James loves Star Academy. She believes this program is uniquely powerful because it helps students realize what they can do and step into their own power as a learner.
“Sometimes, students struggle early on with the Star Academy model because it is so different from what they’re used to in traditional classrooms,” said Ms. James. “At Star Academy, each student is in their own driver’s seat. Here, you have to take ownership of your education and your growth as an individual – work ethic, accountability, collaboration, and more. Once they understand and embrace the model and begin to empower themselves with it, they’re headed off towards success – fast!”
Ms. James also discussed that while this program is transformational for so many students, it can also be hard to get prospective students and their families to consider at face value.
“Students can sometimes shy away from the academy experience because it seems different, or like it’s a ‘special program’ for struggling students,” Ms. James confided. “But once we get them in the door and they can see what’s happening here, the way they’re able to through hands-on, active collaborations and experiences, they’re in!”
And sharing enthusiasm about what they see? Ms. James and the Barnwell Star Academy Teaching Team encourage it, because she believes that once the students are excited and on board, they’ll pass along that excitement and buy-in to parents and the community as a whole.
Under Ms. James’ leadership, Guinyard Butler Middle School’s Star Academy program has done an excellent job of infusing stakeholders from the Barnwell community into their classroom. She and other local leaders and community advocates are constantly encouraging students to identify and seek out local resources and opportunities around them that they need to thrive in life.
“Recently, we visited a career center in our area that prepares students for a variety of technical-skill-based career opportunities that are available locally,” Ms. James recalled. “That trip was really eye-opening for our students because it allowed some students to envision their futures and the training they would need to be successful with their own eyes. That was very impactful for our students.”
“We’re also preparing to take students on a college tour of Vorhees University in a few weeks,” Ms. James said. “Some of our students had never considered college an option for themselves before, but now that they’ve found empowerment in the Star Academy program, they’re seeing college as the next piece of the puzzle after graduating high school. That’s a huge – and exciting – shift!”
Investigating local resources that expand students’ understanding of local isn’t the only thing that Barnwell Star Academy students are doing either: Ms. James works diligently to infuse leaders and programs into their program that bring unique perspectives and approaches to students’ current lives and needs.
“Our program is blessed to have so many great programs and leaders who see the potential of our students and want to help them get there by supporting them through this season of their lives,” Ms. James told us. “We have an incredible team of community advocates that visit on a regular basis to discuss topics that are relevant to students today, whether it’s vaping, underage drinking, etc. These individuals can really level with our students and have built a rapport with them that lets them know that if they are being influenced negatively outside of the program, there are other avenues they can choose to stay on the right path. One area we’ve seen a stark difference in is our students’ perceptions of law enforcement since beginning our Community Advocate program. Many students, for one reason or another, didn’t like or trust law enforcement previously. But by having regular, casual visits and chats with a community advocate (deputy from the Sheriff’s Department), they’ve totally changed their perception of local law enforcement and the value they bring to our community.”
Ms. James’ devotion to her work as Star Academy Director and to the students she serves is tangible: it’s evident that her “babies” (as she calls her students) mean the world to her. And from seeing their interactions together, it is safe to say the feeling is mutual. Her dedication to her students, work, and community is tangible and inspiring. But Ms. James told us that she didn’t become the leader, teacher, advocate, and mother she is today alone – so many around her contributed to where she stands and serves today.
“As a daughter of Barnwell School District 45, I have been blessed to be educated by the best in this field,” Ms. James told us. “From the hard lessons to the gentle yet stern reminders that caring is truly sharing. I am grateful for my village of professors, close friends, and, most importantly, my family, which has provided endless support in my journey as an educator. To the great leaders of Barnwell School District 45, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead and share in this capacity as I impact today’s leaders and students for years to come.”
Thank you, Ms. James, for all you do for your students and for being a shining example of Star Academy program leadership – your example motivates so many of us!