As a former principal and educator in the Richmond County school system for almost 20 years, Dr. Wayne Frazier was well known for bending the rules.
Whether he was the principal at Glenn Hills High School, the Alternative Education Center or Tubman Middle School, Frazier refused to lead “by the book” because he said it was like banging his head against a brick wall.
“Back when I was a principal, my superintendent frequently called me unorthodox, but he didn’t say it in a complimentary way,” Frazier said, chuckling. “He would say, ‘You are doing things too unorthodox,’ as if that would make me change my leadership style. But, to me, it was a compliment because, while I did things differently, I still made positive change. I was proud to be unorthodox.”
While Frazier didn’t mind being the maverick of Richmond County principals, his bosses didn’t always agree with some of his tactics.
More than two years ago, Frazier was demoted from being principal at the alternative school to being sent back to teaching in a classroom at Glenn Hills Middle School by both the school board members and then-Richmond County School Superintendent Frank Roberson.
Not long after the demotion, Frazier resigned from the school system after almost two decades and began teaching at Southern Barber College on Deans Bridge Road.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for Frazier.
He recently earned a very different title in Augusta: Frazier is now the newest member of the Richmond County School Board.
This past November, Frazier defeated incumbent board member Barbara Pulliam by about 300 votes to earn his seat on the board.
For many local political observers, his win was an ironic turn of events considering his rocky past with the school board, but Frazier insists he is not out for revenge.
“As a principal in the school system, I had some turbulent times with the leadership downtown. That’s no secret,” Frazier said. “However, as far as I’m concerned, I cannot be an effective leader on the board if I bring all of that baggage with me. So, for me, that’s all in the past.”
As the newest school board member, Frazier said his main goal is to get the more than 20 schools in Richmond County off the failing list and help those schools succeed.
“That’s my job, but I understand I cannot do that by myself. It can’t be a Wayne Frazier Show,” Frazier said. “I need to create alliances and build relationships with every member on the board so we can move forward and get those 21 schools off the failing list.”
In order to turn around those failing schools, Frazier insists that the school board needs input from principals, parents, teachers, business leaders, members of the clergy and the students themselves.
“We need to really listen to what they have to say,” Frazier said. “The truth is that certain kinds of parents, we don’t include them in the discussion. Those parents who have children who are challenging, sometimes we say, ‘Well, those parents aren’t going to come to a meeting anyway.’ But it is up to the leaders to make the schools welcoming to all parents, especially the ones who have children with the most problems.”
In fact, when Frazier was the principal at the alternative school, he launched its first Parent Teacher Association.
“The alternative school had never had a PTA. Now, what school in Richmond County would you think really needs a PTA program?” Frazier asked. “A magnet school? Richmond Academy? Or the alternative school? When I was principal there, we went from not having a PTA to having one of the most successful ones in the county as it relates to parental engagement. At the PTA meeting, we typically had over 200 parents attend and we never had less than 100 at the meetings when I was there.”
But Frazier admits that he had to provide additional incentives to encourage parents to come to the PTA.
First, he would require each teacher to call every parent of a child in his or her classroom and talk to them about attending the PTA meetings.
“I would get the teachers to ask the parents, ‘Can you commit to coming?’” Frazier said. “If the answer was, ‘Yes,’ I’d have them check their names off a list and make sure they called them periodically to remind them about the meetings.”
If the parent said they couldn’t make the meetings, Frazier would get the teachers to ask if there was anything the school could do to make it possible for them to attend.
“If they said, ‘I don’t have any transportation,’ we had a solution for that,” Frazier said. “The concerned teachers and staff at the school would donate a dollar or two and we would put some money in a pot. Then, we would pay a regular school bus driver to go to these different addresses to pick up the parents and their small children and bring them to the school.”
It was definitely unconventional, but it drastically increased parent turnout at the meetings, Frazier said.
“And with the small children, we would put them in a little room and they played some games and watched a movie and ate some popcorn while we handled the school’s business,” he said. “So we watched their children while the parents attended the meetings.”
If parents had to work during the PTA meetings, Frazier said he would frequently write the parents’ bosses to see if they could get the time off.
“I would write, ‘Could you please relieve him or her from work without punishment and if she doesn’t show up to the PTA meetings, I’ll write you back and let you know that she did not show up,’” Frazier said. “Many of the parent were really surprised that their bosses let them out of work. Some parents even told me that their bosses respected them even more.”
As a further incentive to attend the meetings, Frazier said the school would offer a meal to the parents who attended.
“And we are not talking about hot dogs or pizza,” Frazier said. “These people need real food. Sometimes the only time their children get a meal is in the schools and the parents are not too far behind. So I got some volunteers, some friends of mine, who cook in the community to provide meals like barbecue and fried fish.”
In fact, one of his favorite supporters for the PTA meetings were Bill and Sandi Watkins, owners of the Sports Center on Broad Street.
“I love them. They are absolutely great people,” Frazier said. “I remember the last PTA meeting we had, they provided the food, paid for it, cooked it and cleaned up everything for about 200 PTA parents. I’ll never forget that.”
Treating these parents and some of their troubled students with respect and kindness made all the difference in the world, Frazier said.
“How you treat parents and how you assist them will engage them in the school and get them involved in what’s going on with their child,” Frazier said. “The schools can’t do it alone. They need that involvement from the parents.”
Also, unlike the way he was sometimes treated as a Richmond County principal, Frazier said he looks forward to suggestions from the faculty and staff at these struggling schools.
“What I had problems with as a principal, I was given a $2 million school improvement grant,” Frazier said. “I had gang members in the school, the school was failing, but I didn’t catch any hell until I got that $2 million grant. All of a sudden, I was encouraged to hire consultants that I didn’t need. We got some consultants in the building from Idaho or somewhere who didn’t understand or even care about these children.”
From his perspective, Frazier said the $2 million federal grant was an absolute waste of money.
“I didn’t need that $2 million because I didn’t have a money problem,” Frazier said. “My school’s problem was not money. My problem was personnel issues. We had good teachers, but teachers that were not prepared culturally to deal with the children in their classrooms. It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the resources. But we got money thrown at that problem.”
When he questioned the need for the grant, Frazier said he was criticized.
“That money didn’t do nothing. I can’t see where a dime of that money helped the school I was in,” he said. “But it is very politically incorrect for a principal to talk about it that way. I was supposed to say, ‘Thank you, boss. Show me the money.’ I wasn’t supposed to question it. I wasn’t supposed to say, ‘You guys can take this $2 million and give it to a school that has a money problem. Just give me the right personnel. I don’t need the money.’”
Frazier said he spent the majority of his time as principal mentoring young teachers and trying to help them properly handle their classrooms.
In many occasions, that also meant making home visits for at-risk students, he said.
“I believe in being hands-on and going into neighborhoods and seeing where these children live, sleep, eat and play ball,” Frazier said. “That also meant going at some of the most inopportune times, like 10, 11 or 12 o’clock at night so I could talk to them in their environment.”
While Frazier encouraged his teachers to follow his example, he acknowledged that not everyone could make home visits.
“I had teachers who were afraid for their lives to go into some of these communities,” Frazier said. “But I had an edge on a lot of teachers and principals. It’s amazing to me, but I did not know that, one day, being poor and coming from a very violent, disruptive and dysfunctional family would give me an advantage, but it did. I was able to use that to help others.”
Frazier grew up in a poverty-stricken home with 10 other siblings being raised by alcoholic parents in Shreveport, La.
His childhood was far from easy.
“I grew up in a house with 11 children, sleeping on the floor,” Frazier said. “The first time I ever slept in a bed was when I was 17 years old in the United States Army. Now, here in Augusta, I am going to these homes and seeing some of these children who have it 10 times worse than I had growing up.”
When an educator sees a child in that kind of environment, it gives them an entirely different perspective about that student’s behavior in class.
“So I asked teachers to go to their students’ homes,” he said. “But I remember one lady came back and was totally honest with me. She said, ‘Dr. Frazier, I can’t go to these homes anymore. There are roaches everywhere.’”
Frazier said the teacher was completely horrified by the conditions of some of these homes.
“Well, I joked with her and said, ‘I lived in a house with roaches. If it wasn’t for roaches in my house as a kid, I wouldn’t have had any pets,’” Frazier said, laughing. “But that teacher taught me something. She didn’t come up like that. She doesn’t know anybody like that. While I may not be afraid of roaches, I can’t expect everyone to be Wayne Frazier.”
After talking to the teacher, Frazier said he respected her for being honest with him.
“Here was a teacher who loved teaching and loved her children, but was uncomfortable making home visits. So, I created a team when she needed to make these home visits,” Frazier said. “I would have someone go with her that came from that kind of culture.
She teamed up with another teacher and they walked in that home together. That way, she could walk in and comfortably talk to the parents and the other teacher would keep her eye on the roaches.”
During his time at Tubman Middle and the alternative school, Frazier said he was able to see some of the most challenging students begin to excel.
“When you have a team of teachers, staff, custodians, secretaries and a principal who genuinely love these children, it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned about who had this degree or that degree or what your area of teaching was, as much as I was concerned about you having a genuine care for all children. Once you have that, we’ll get you a piece of paper and show you how to teach math or whatever. That’s the small stuff. My goal was to get teachers who would teach children the same as if they were their biological children.”
In order to improve the more than 20 failing schools in Richmond County, Frazier believes there needs to be more individualized support for these students and less of a focus on constantly testing them.
“Now, we should have an evaluation that all children who are going to the schools are competent at a certain level, but I think we have too many tests and we change tests too many times. It is only hurting our children,” Frazier said. “In fact, the only people who are benefiting from these tests are the people who are making the money off of them. There are a lot of people who are making a lot of money off these tests and the tests don’t mean a thing.”
It’s no wonder that there are so many new residents moving into the area and immediately looking at homes in Columbia County after hearing about the failing schools in Richmond County, Frazier said.
“As a parent, if I was moving here for Cyber Command, and I thought my child would get a better education in Columbia County, I owe it to my child to get them in a school in Columbia County,” Frazier bluntly said. “That’s the way I feel about it. This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about being loyal to a system who is not loyal to me and my child. No way. I’m not going to fall on any sword for a system that I don’t believe in. And I’m definitely not going to punish my child if there is a better opportunity to Columbia County.”
That being said, Frazier said it is his job as a Richmond County school board member to fix the failing schools in Augusta.
“My job is to create a school system here that the people in Columbia County and Aiken County will want to move to Richmond County for the schools,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about the magnet schools because everybody is not going to be able to go to Davidson Fine Arts. We need to improve all of the schools in Richmond County.”
Turning a failing school around is not easy, but it has to be done, Frazier said.
“Every school that I’ve gone into as a principal, when I first walked in the door, I said, ‘I wouldn’t want my own child in this school.’ That’s the honest truth,” Frazier said. “I am not one of those people who are going to say, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful school.’ I’m not going to lie. But I also always said this, ‘It is my job to turn it into a school that I would have my child in.’”
And, in every case, Frazier said he was extremely proud of his role as principal.
“When I was principal, every school that I walked out of, I would be proud to have my child there,” he said. “Now, as a board member, I believe if a school is failing, I’m not going to be pointing at the principal or the teachers or the children or the parents. It’s not their fault. In my opinion, the buck stops with the board.”
The school board needs to take responsibility for the chronically failing schools in Richmond County, he said.
“The public should be holding our feet to the fire,” Frazier said. “If the schools are failing, then we, as a board, are failing and it’s our job to turn these schools around.”