Beaufort County has two of the top schools in the state.
Beaufort Middle School and Hilton Head Island High School won the Palmetto's Finest award Tuesday evening during a ceremony in Columbia.
The award is presented annually by the S.C. Association of School Administrators. It is given to the top two elementary schools and to a single middle and high school.
Beaufort Middle Principal Carole Ingram credited the school district, superintendent Valerie Truesdale and her staff when she accepted the award. But the real winners, she said, are students, who work every day to meet the school's high expectations.
"This is your award because you are the finest," she said.
About 300 Beaufort County students, along with parents, teachers and community members traveled to Columbia Tuesday for the announcement.
The ceremony had the feel of a pep rally as claps, the blare of noisemakers and shouts of joy erupted at the Koger Center for the Performing Arts at the University of the South Carolina.
Hilton Head High Principal Amanda O'Nan had to wait for the cheers and chants of students to subside when the school's award was announced. After thanking students, staff, the district and her family, she ended her speech with a shouted "Go Seahawks!"
According to a news release from the school district, the district is only the third in the award's history to have two winners in the same year. The other two districts were Greenville County and Columbia's Richland District 2.
"To have not one, but two winners in the same year is extraordinary," Truesdale said in the news release. "It demonstrates what can happen when students and schools have strong leaders, hard-working faculty and staff and consistent support from their communities."
The schools were judged based on a 20-page application and two visits by an evaluation committee, which includes educators and past award winners. Criteria for the award include student achievement, faculty training, program goals, teaching quality, office practices and community involvement.
The only other Beaufort County school to win the award was Shell Point Elementary in 1998, according to the association's website. The award has been given since 1978.
Other winners this year were Beech Hill Elementary School in Dorchester District 2 and Burgess Elementary School in Horry County.
O'Nan, who called winning the award "overwhelming," said she felt the school's staff is what set it apart.
"I have an extremely dedicated staff that looks after each and every individual kid," she said. "They go above and beyond to make students feel like they are important and are cared about."
Throughout the judging process, O'Nan has been confident that her school was one of the best in the state. Last year, the school was a semi-finalist in the competition.
She has cited the school's recent jump in state report card ratings -- it rose two levels this year, from "average" to "excellent" -- as one of the reasons the school deserved the award.
It also earned an "excellent" rating for growth on the report cards, making it the first school in the district to earn excellent ratings across the board.
Part of that jump could be attributed to extra one-on-one attention teachers gave struggling students, O'Nan has said. About 70 students struggling to pass some state tests were paired with a teacher to get extra help, and almost every one passed those exams the next time, she has said.
Last week, the school was awarded a Palmetto Gold Award for overall performance and a Palmetto Silver Award for closing achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students.
According to the district release, Hilton Head High students also gave about 17,000 hours to community service within the last year. O'Nan said the award isn’t the end of the line for the school; it merely sets the bar higher.
"We hope to continue this momentum going forward," she said.
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.