Dr. Cynthia Gregory-Smalls
story by Lindsey Lenoir
photos by John Wollwerth
In the ever-changing tides of educational policy and reform, one Beaufort County Board member is sticking to a tried and true mantra, “Never give up! Keep pushing forward!” Dr. Cynthia Gregory-Smalls has dedicated her life to education. Now retired, Cynthia spent over 30 years in the field. Receiving her teaching certificate from Hunter College in New York, she went on to further her education and received not only a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Shaw University, but also an M.A. in Education from USC Columbia, a second M.A. in Education Leadership from Cambridge College in Boston, and finally, a Doctorate in the Philosophy of Education from Walden University.
Initially starting her career as an elementary school teacher, she would go on the administrative course to serve as assistant principal. She is certified as a school supervisor, superintendent, secondary principal and secondary supervisor.
Such a long list of professional accomplishments could not have happened if it weren’t for a deep-rooted dedication and commitment to personal drive. Driven is exactly what Dr. Gregory-Smalls is. It is a drive that was cultivated in the household of her parents, Mr. Wendell P. Gregory, and Mrs. Carrie Singleton Gregory. When asked who her first influential teacher was, she proudly stated, “My mother was my first teacher. She taught me how to read, and all about the world through our set of World Book Encyclopedias: Childcraft Edition.” Her father also played a tremendous role in her early education. “My father can’t go unrecognized either. He played a big part in reinforcing what we were learning in school.” She said her father would come in from a long day at the shipyard where he worked as a longshoreman, sit down with Cynthia and her sisters, and ask them to recite their multiplication tables, while encouraging them to tell him all about what they had learned that day.
At the time, neither of her parents had received a formal education. The Gregory’s encouraged their children to keep going and to invest in their own education. They had both been enrolled, at one time, to the Penn Normal Industrial and Agricultural School, or Penn School (as it was originally named). It was the first school started on St. Helena Island for abandoned and freed slaves. In the beginning, Penn School was part of the Port Royal Initiative, a program created to help equip these former slaves and their children for freedom. They were taught how to read, and how to sustain themselves and their families by learning a trade or skill set that would provide them some economic stability.
Unfortunately, both her mother and father were called away from completing their education due to household responsibilities, and lack of transportation.
According to Cynthia, the regret of her parents, for not being able to complete their own education, spurred them to instill the importance of education in their children.
Eventually, Cynthia’s mother went on to receive a diploma through the Beaufort County Adult Education Program.
In addition to the influence of her parents, teachers like her 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Pettigrew, propelled Gregory-Smalls towards a path of dedicated service to the field of education. This singular teacher stuck out in her mind because of her devotion to her students. “She was just so passionate about teaching, and she cared, she really took her time to make sure we understood. She just really cared.”
Growing up in Harlem, N.Y, Dr. Gregory-Smalls would often summer on St. Helena Island. The family would come back to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles. She would eventually go on to marry Michael Smalls. Today, they have four children and are the proud grandparents of five grandchildren.
Currently, Dr. Gregory-Smalls serves on the District 3 seat for the Board of Education, representing St. Helena, Lady’s Island, and other parts of Beaufort. During her 30+ years with the Beaufort County School system, she was honored to be at St. Helena Elementary School for 18 of those years, 10 of which she was Assistant Principal. As a member of the Beaufort County Educational Association (BCEA) she has been able to mentor and encourage many of her fellow teachers. When speaking to her recently, she was in the middle of fine tuning a speech that she was about to give at a BCEA Teacher Appreciation Gala to a group of colleagues who would be gathering together to be celebrated for their hard work and dedication to the field of education. Gregory-Smalls articulates, “You know, speaking to your colleagues is a whole different thing. I have sat where they sit, I just want to relate to them and tell them job well done. That we all just need to keep pushing forward, and never give up!”
As a Board member, Gregory-Smalls hopes to see a shift in equipping our students to return to jobs here in the Lowcountry. She desires for the schools to provide opportunities to learn technological competitiveness, participate in apprenticeship programs, and introduce them to amassing a new trade and skill set. “I want to see these students returning to us and becoming part of the success of our town.” She feels strongly that we need to provide the opportunities for our students to return here and have sustainable careers, start new businesses, and reinvest in their community.
She also stated that one of her highest callings in education has been to be a voice of encouragement to her fellow educators. “I want to encourage my colleagues to keep being trailblazers. Never give up, hold firm to their platforms on reform for change to happen.” She admits there are numerous, and often times overwhelming challenges that teachers today face. Fortunately, “out of those challenges have arisen dedicated and driven students. Students who are actively seeing the results of petitioning for change. We need to be encouraged by that fact.”
“We have students in our school system who are writing to their legislatures, students who are going on to acquire dual degrees,” Gregory-Smalls states. “Our graduation rate is at an all-time high, and we have the most Jr. Scholars this year than we have ever had.” According to Dr. Gregory-Smalls, “we are preparing and shaping the next generation to move forward, so never give up!”