School district superintendent leaves behind 21 years of experience

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) — Of recent high-profile departures from the Charleston County School District, none leave with as much experience in the organization as Jennifer Coker.

Her tenure with the district spanned 21 years and saw her hold a number of leadership positions rising through the ranks until she became executive director of the Department of Alternative Programs and Services.

Coker announced his retirement last Thursday and is expected to officially step down at the end of the month.

The position included the challenge of supervising some of the toughest students and tasked her with not only educating them, but also setting them up for success after high school. The most notable schools she looks after are notoriously Liberty Hill Academy and Daniel Jenkins Academy, which have seen a slew of violent incidents towards staff at the hands of students.

To Coker’s credit, Daniel Jenkins’ challenges are nothing she wouldn’t put herself through. Coker says she spent five years as principal of the school, restoring more than 100 students to their original schools. While there, she says they went through a “meaningful education program for students at the juvenile detention center.”

Before that, she served as the principal of West Ashley Middle School.

“The school’s report card grade went from ‘At Risk’ in 2006 to ‘Average’ in 2009, a two-tier improvement under this system,” Coker said.

As the District’s alternative programs manager, Coker has been involved in nearly every program aimed at helping students and addressing behavior. Coker says some of his accomplishments include implementing a Restorative Practices Framework that is currently being implemented in 35 schools and creating several task forces aimed at addressing issues such as bullying.

More recently and, perhaps more successfully, Coker has found herself advocating for the district’s efforts to address student mental health. She has partnered with the Department of Mental Health to increase mental health services by 300% in six years and led efforts to provide calming kits and calming rooms to any school that wants them. She also started the district’s art therapy program and worked to develop and lead the Elementary and Secondary III Emergency Relief Fund effort focused on comprehensive services.

Coker also cites winning a Prevent Project Grant as one of her top accomplishments. The grant provides $5 million to support seven North Charleston schools.

“Throughout my tenure, in any role, developing leaders and encouraging people to see beyond their current position has been an honor,” Coker said. “Again, there are too many individuals to mention, but I hope they know they have touched me far more than I could ever touch them.”

With his retirement, the Department of Alternative Programs and Services is expected to be reorganized. Details on what this means are still being finalized.

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