Renarta Thompkins

A Trailblazing Educator

RenartaThompkins webby Becca Edwards

Photography by Christian Lee

As assistant professor of literacy at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, and a pivotal player in the United Way’s Early Grade Reading Program, Renarta Thompkins, Ph.D. is blazing an educational trail in our community and the “Corridor of Shame.” 

“The Corridor of Shame, a stretch of rural South Carolina along I-95, is historically known for predominantly black, low-scoring, rural schools,” explained Renarta. “I knew being African American, if anyone was going to help the problem, it needed to be one of us.”

Renarta is one of the few African American reading specialists in the nation, and if you met her, that wouldn’t surprise you. She has been a standout all her life. In the 1970s, she received a full ride scholarship to Illinois Institute of Technology. “There were 1200 men and only 12 women. It was fabulous,” joked Renarta. 

She received a 90 percent tuition discount to earn her masters degree at Emory University. And, when it came to her doctorate, “They told me there was no guarantee I’d get in [to Emory’s doctorate program] because they only accepted six students each year and I was like, ‘I’ve got no doubt I’m getting in.’” Sure enough, she was accepted and awarded another full ride.

Believing she is “truly blessed,” Renarta admits she has had some failures but advised, “You can’t ever give up.”  She continued, “For example, the hard part about my job is publish or perish. And no one regulates you. You have to set goals for yourself and accomplish them. Sometimes, I have to say no to some things in order to do what I know needs to be done. I might send out an article [to an educational journal] and get denied three or four times. But eventually, I know I will get accepted, so I just don’t take it personally.”

Renarta carries her can-do attitude into all aspects of her life. She credits much of her success to her willingness to carpe diem. “One thing I would say to young women is, ‘Never turn down a good opportunity.’ If something looks good, jump on it. I don’t understand what holds some people back. Don’t be timid. Just grab it and if it’s not good for you, you can just let it go.”

Renarta moved to Hilton Head in 2011 to once again pioneer an important project. “USCB is a start up. I wanted to build my own literacy program.” Shortly after flexing her literacy muscles at USCB, The United Way asked her to help with the organization’s Early Grades Reading Initiative. “I had not intended to be so involved but it has been so exciting. It is one of the reasons I enjoy waking up in the morning.”  

Knowing she is never without a goal in mind, I asked Renarta what she thinks South Carolina could do to improve its educational system. I mention our state’s consistently low ranking. For the first time, Renarta’s signature warm smile fades. She reminds me of a protective parent ready to defend her child against criticism. “When I look at the research and think about it experientially, teachers make a difference. If you really want to improve education, you need to do everything you can to get the best, most committed teachers for our kids,” began Renarta. “And you need to give teachers the best professional development, resources and teaching materials. You don’t necessarily need to pay them a professional football player’s salary, because we are not in it for the money, but you’ve got to back us up and that’s not being done.” Renarta’s smile suddenly returned and she added, “I always tell my students, ‘We don’t need one more mediocre teacher. We need only the best.’”

Up Close:

Every Saturday: “I take my flat coat retriever Mogi and dalmatian mix Smidge to Hardee’s to treat them to a biscuit.” 

Every Sunday: “I make a weekly punch list of all my goals for the week including taking 7,500 steps every day, professional tasks, grocery lists and which books I want to read next.”

She is addicted to: News programs. “I am constantly reading headlines and flipping through the news channels. I always want to know what’s going on.”

The title of her biography would be: “Definitely that Paul Simon song ‘Still Crazy After All These Years.’”

Her motto: “Bugs Bunny’s philosophy, ‘Never take life too seriously, you will never get out alive.’”

Her wish: More people would volunteer for the United Way’s Early Grades Reading Initiative. “We need 600 volunteers to reach our students. Right now we have 200.”