Black History Month Feature: Dr. Phinnize Fisher

What’s it like to have a school named after you? Dr. Phinnize Fisher is one of the few who can tell you. 

In 2004, Dr. Fisher, or “Penny” to her friends, was selected as the ninth superintendent of Greenville County Schools, the first woman to hold the role. Dr. Fisher’s vision and determination led to many innovative programs in the district, including the opening of A.J. Whittenberg Elementary as the state’s first elementary school with a fully integrated engineering curriculum.  

Her retirement in 2012 ended a decorated 43-year career, during which she won numerous awards for her innovative leadership in the field of education. But perhaps one of the biggest honors was the decision to name GCS’s new STEAM middle school for her when the school opened in August of 2014. 

In this week’s Black History Month profile, Dr. Fisher shares how one piece of bad advice motivated her career and how Dr. Benjamin Mays can still inspire today.  

Where and when did you graduate? 

St. Paul’s College, Lawrenceville, Virginia, B.S. 1969
Rutgers-The State University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, M. ED -1972; Ed. D. 1984 
Post Graduate Studies: UCLA and University of Utah 

When did you first know that you wanted to be a teacher? 

I knew that I wanted to be a teacher in 1965, my first year in undergraduate school. 

Who is one teacher who set you on the path you are on today and how did they do it? 

This is a very good question. My science teachers and mathematics teacher inspired me to learn. Because of them I experienced knowledge and understanding and I enjoyed the creativity and critical thinking associated with learning how to learn. I felt the excitement that learning brings and realized that I wanted more education. 

Another teacher that I admired and respected gave me guidance. I actually believed that she was perfect and I wanted to be like her until the day she told me that I should not go to college because of the financial requirements and that I should just get married. That conversation hurt me and motivated me. 

What is it like having a school named after you? Did you ever think that was possible? 

I will answer the second question first. I never thought about rewards or accolades as a purpose for my work. I thought about children and my responsibility for the children and adults under my watch or leadership. 

I am honored and it is humbling to have a school named after me. It is very visceral. I often feel the urge to cry because of all the different emotions associated with my life that led to having a school named after me. I am very appreciative of the Greenville County School Board for naming the school after me. I am also honored because the naming committee and the Greenville community forwarded my name to the School Board as a recommendation for the middle school name, Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School. 

Tell us about a historical figure or event that you feel a deep connection to that you think people should know about — especially during Black History Month? 

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays born in Ninety-Six, S.C., is a historical figure who is relevant to me and education today. He was a minister, an educator, an American rights leader and is often credited with laying the intellectual foundation of the American Civil Rights Movement. There are many quotes by Dr. Mays that will help students think and motivate them to be whatever they want to be. 

What is one piece of advice you share with young people today? 

I advise young people to dream and I connect achieving those dreams to the purpose of learning. I also help them understand how success at school relates to a successful, fulfilling and meaningful life. Dr. Benjamin J. Mays said, “It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” 

In honor of United Way African American Leadership Greenville’s 20th anniversary in 2019, we created a special scholarship fund for students pursing higher education. This year, in celebration of Black History Month, please consider a gift to the AALG Scholarship Fund and help us support the next generation of Black educators, community leaders and history-makers in Greenville County. CLICK HERE to give today. 

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