By Margaret Pilarski for The Island Connection
Growing up, Andre Dukes never expected to end up in a classroom, let alone become the principal of a high school. Life on a farm in rural Kingstree, South Carolina, meant he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his family before him: farming and entrepreneurship. And so he headed to Charleston Southern University with the intention of following through on his plans.
It was during his junior year that he was encouraged to observe a classroom at an elementary school. Though he still graduated with a business degree and got his MBA, the experience led to a change of course for Dukes, one that even then he didn’t foresee.
“Becoming an administrator was secondary to me, it was never something I anticipated doing. I always thought I would go into education for a few years and then go into business,” he says running a school is like having your own business and I didn’t realize that until I got the position.”
Initially Dukes taught at James Island Charter High School, then moved to Cane Bay High School as an instructional coach—working with teachers to improve their classroom practices—before he spent three years at St. John’s High School as an associate principal.
“When I was here the first time, we came into a school that was at-risk, one of the lowest performing schools in the state, and within three years we were able to take the school from ‘at risk’ to ‘good,’ the highest rating it has ever had,” he says.
That successful run of work led to another assistant principal position at West Ashley High School, a significantly larger school with a more diverse selection of course offerings for students.
“That was good for me because it gave me a different environment, a different skill set that I didn’t have as an assistant principal which I needed to be a principal,” Dukes says. He never meant to return to St. John’s in another role. “My plan was to become an administrator, but I never thought it would be back here at St. John’s. It’s been a blessing, it’s been awesome. I felt very comfortable walking back through the doors, knowing the students already—knowing them by name, knowing a lot of their families. It was like I never left.”
Three months into his position as principal at St. John’s High School, Dukes is prioritizing community relations and student opportunity, and believes the two go hand in hand.
“One of the goals this year is to get more people into the building: more community members, establish more networks, change the image of the school. We want to let everyone know what our vision is and how they can jump on board and help us with it. It’s important that the community rally behind the school,” Dukes says. “If we’re going to be successful, it’s going to take more than me, it’s going to take the wider community to do that. There are a lot of challenges we still face and we hope and expect to come up with solutions as a team: community, parents, everyone.”
The growth of their network of supporters is key to providing more opportunities to students as well. While fundraisers like the recent golf outing are essential for providing necessities to students in need, Dukes sees a greater good at work.
“We want to continue with fundraisers, but more so we want to continue with the relationships—putting us with the right audience and the networks that come along with it. Networks are more important than any money that will ever be given to St. John’s. If you’re in the right network, I think that’s going to help us more than anything,” he says.
Existing partnerships on Kiawah and Seabrook include support for the high school’s culinary arts and horticulture programs, as well as internships, workbased learning opportunities for students, guest speakers, and even everyday assistance in classrooms.
Another initiative at St. John’s High School is Dukes’ new vision: Scholars of the Island, Citizens of the World. The motto is posted around the school, and students are expected to look and act like scholars and citizens both on the school’s campus and in their lives outside of the classroom. The outlook also mirrors the way Dukes wants to prepare the students for life after graduation.
“My goal is to make sure every student has a college- or career-ready experience in high school so that they can make a choice in what they want to do post-secondary. I encourage them to try any and everything we offer to see if you’re college-ready or to see if you just want to go right into the workforce,” he says.
Programs include certifications that allow students to work upon graduation, and military opportunities through the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. The school also expands upon their Advanced Placement classes with the introduction of an AP Academy next school year.
Anyone interested in meeting Dukes or learning more about the school can come to Parent Chat, sessions open to the entire community that include a hot breakfast, school tour, a peek into classrooms and even meeting student leaders. The next one is Nov. 5 at 8:30 a.m.
“I’m the principal, but I’m not the only one in the school making decisions,” Dukes says. “We are a comprehensive, community-based high school, so the community needs to be involved in what we do. I can go out in the community, but what’s even better is for them to come here. That’s really what I want for St. John’s.”