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.
Ingram said the award is as much for the community of Beaufort as it is for the school.
"So many community agencies support our students in our building and invite us out to learn in their businesses," she said.
Ingram has previously cited parental support through the School Improvement Council and Parent Action Council as boosting the school to the finals.
The school had 24 Junior Scholars in 2011. That designation recognizes eighth-graders who have high schools on the Preliminary SAT. Additionally, 67 of its seventh-graders qualified to participate in Duke University's Talent Identification Program, according to the district release.
It has received "good" ratings on its state report cards for two years running.
The school's art curriculum has earned it designations as both a Distinguished Arts Program School and an Arts in the Basic Curriculum School.
Last week, the school was given a Palmetto Silver Award from the S.C. Department of Education for improving student achievement. It's the second year in a row the school has won that award.
The school was a finalist for the Palmetto's Finest award last year. Still, winning this year came as a shock, Ingram said.
About 55 students and 15 parents traveled to Columbia to show their support, and Ingram said a celebration was being planned during the bus ride home.
"We're going to display (the plaque) in the front office for a really long time after we pass it around and everyone gets to enjoy it," she said.
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.