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INDIAN LAND – Indian Land Middle School Principal David McDonald was sitting in his office chatting with Lancaster County School District administrators Lydia Quinn and Dr. Kathy Durbin on Wednesday, Dec. 5, when he got an urgent message.
“Miss (Keisha) Witherspoon and Mrs. (Debra) Miller need you in the gym right now.”
With that, McDonald politely ended the nearly 40-minute-long visit and headed for the gym expecting the worse.
Instead of an altercation, what McDonald found was a gymnasium full of cheering, clapping students, teachers and staff, district officials, family members and representatives of the S.C. Association of School Administrators.
They slipped in unannounced and unnoticed to surprise McDonald with the news he’d been named the 2013 South Carolina Middle School Principal of the Year.
SCASA Executive Director Molly Spearman said, as it does every year, the association reviewed nominations for hundreds of principals and conducted interviews with finalists across South Carolina in its effort to find the best principals in the state.
“And we have found one you know very well – Mr. David McDonald,” Spearman said in announcing the honor.
“It takes a lot of great students, parents and teachers to have a great school,” she said, “but we know from years of research that you also have to have a great principal – and you have a great one right here.”
Standing at the podium, McDonald watched still in amazement as Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore spoke.
“Leadership is important,” Moore said of McDonald. “He is a workaholic, you know it and I know it. He has high expectations for you, but he also has high expectations for himself.
“David, we are very proud of you and the success you’ve had,” he said, turning to McDonald. “This is a great community school and we appreciate all that you’ve done to help run this.”
As Moore predicted, McDonald said he couldn’t have had any success at the school were it not for his faculty and staff. He then spoke to his students.
“I don’t do what I do for awards; I do what I do because of you,” McDonald said. “You are the most important people in this building.”
Spearman said SCASA chose McDonald based on his leadership style, his knowledge of content instruction, how he works with his teachers and student achievement, among many other measures.
She said McDonald rose to the top during the interview process, during which his ability and enthusiasm for his job shone.
“Those things are David,” Spearman said. “He loves his students and his school community – it’s a ministry to him.”
In recognition of his win, McDonald is eligible for the national Principal of the Year award and will represent the state’s middle school principals in Washington, D.C., next fall. He’ll also be called up throughout the year to speak to other educators at events throughout the state and nation, Spearman said.
On Thursday, McDonald said as soon as he opened the gymnasium door, he knew right away what was going on since he knew about his nomination.
Still, he said, he was amazed at how many people got past him without his noticing.
Once again, McDonald said he would not have had the success he’s had were it not for the support and help of others throughout his career, from district administrators to his current faculty and staff.
“It’s an honor just to be nominated, to have people have that much faith in you,” McDonald said. “And then to win? That folks believed in me enough to award it to me? It’s an honor. Very humbling.”
Among those who were not surprised was one of McDonald’s students at ILMS, sixth-grader Cornelius Barber.
Cornelius said he came to admire McDonald one day as he sat in silent lunch watching his principal work on “math problems.”
Cornelius said he wasn’t sure what kind of math it was, maybe figuring everybody’s hours, but he was struck by his focus and intensity as he worked.
“Mr. McDonald works too hard not to be appreciated. He’s a great principal,” Cornelius said. “He goes that extra mile for students and teachers. He’s a great choice.”
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151