Patience and enthusiasm, when mixed like baking soda and vinegar, can make things bubble up and change dramatically. These two vital attributes have helped Public Education Partners, a local education fund, outlast dozens of similar organizations around the country under the leadership of long-time executive director Grier Mullins.
PEP formed among a wave of 125 similar groups in the 1980s, half of which have since disappeared. Positioning itself as the research and development arm of Greenville County public schools, many of PEP’s initiatives have been adopted over the years, including teacher training, leadership development, political forums, and summer literacy programs. The work is strongly guided by data, such as graduation and teacher-turnover rates, alongside feedback from stakeholders including parents, principals, and business leaders.
“THE IMPACT THAT PUBLIC EDUCATION PARTNERS CONTINUES TO HAVE IN OUR COMMUNITY IS TREMENDOUS, AND THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT THE ENTHUSIASM AND DRIVE OF PEOPLE LIKE GRIER MULLINS.”
Linda Hannon, district manager, Duke Energy Carolinas
PEP board member Ed Good says Grier’s patient persistence throughout her 24-year tenure was key to the organization’s continual growth and impact. “A lot of people tend to burn out after a few years, and that’s a real problem. But she has stuck with it and has been determined to make a difference in our schools,” says Good. He and others point out that Mullins also outlasted six superintendents, each with their own strong personalities.
Grier is a skilled persuader. She was involved in political campaigns after college, enjoying advocacy and public policy. “But as I fine-tuned my interests and where I wanted to be involved,” she says, “I really see public schools as the place where lives are going to be changed more than any other place.” Strategy melded with passion, she continued to adjust PEP’s activities to deliver the most impact, even with a small staff.
It’s something Neil Grayson can attest to. After hearing Mullins talk about PEP in a presentation to his Leadership Greenville class, he knew he would dedicate himself to improving public schools. He, too, joined the board, and two terms into his service, Grayson remains impressed at Grier’s deep knowledge of the education world, far beyond her county and state.
CAP & GOWN // Grier Mullins has guided Public Education Partners for much of her career, and as retirement approaches, she graduates with a long legacy of education advocacy.
But to Mullins, PEP’s work means, “being a critical friend of the schools, but also asking tough questions.” She favors behind-the-scenes conversations and resource-sharing over public op-eds to effect change. She has managed to be influential and open, confronting sometimes politically-charged education issues. “Skin in the game is important. You can’t just criticize: you’ve got to be in there helping.”
Even as she prepares for retirement, Mullins is as enthusiastic about education issues and solutions as a recent college grad. She still pauses to think about questions she has answered countless times by now, and makes big, strong hand gestures that mirror the insightful answers coming from her lips. It’s hard to keep Mullins talking about herself for even a few minutes. Her “I” shifts almost imperceptibly to “we” when she looks back on the impact PEP has had. She says she’s learned, over years of collaboration and influencing, that more voices need to be at the table. She expects PEP to continue to be an open, informed, and committed education advocate.
“Our capacity is only limited by our vision,” she says.
THE EDUCATION SPIRIT AWARD RECOGNIZES AN INDIVIDUAL WHO HAS DEDICATED HIS OR HER CAREER TO THE BETTERMENT OF YOUTH AND THE EDUCATION EXPERIENCE FOR THE UPSTATE.