St. Helena Elementary School principal Kay Keeler told her staff last week that she will retire at the end of the school year.
Her departure follows calls last year from parents, former teachers and a school board member for an overhaul of the underperforming school.
But retirement "was strictly a family decision," Keeler said by phone Wednesday. "It's time for me to come home and be a full-time minister's wife and grandmother."
Interim superintendent Jackie Rosswurm said the district has already advertised the position and consulted with incoming superintendent Jeffrey Moss about arranging interviews.
Rosswurm said Keeler told her a few weeks ago that she was thinking about retiring.
"I said I was very proud of her and congratulated her for making that decision," Rosswurm said. "I know she's excited. She's done great things. We're sorry to see her go."
St. Helena Elementary received an "F" last fall when the state released a new system of assessing progress toward federal accountability goals.
Keeler, though, said the failing rating had "absolutely no" bearing on her decision to retire, and "would have come regardless."
"It's been a joy to be part of Beaufort County School District," Keeler said. "We have three grandchildren in the school system, and I will continue to work as a volunteer and advocate for the public school system. I love the schools and it was a hard decision to leave the children, families and teachers, but my family and I felt it was the right choice."
Since 2007, the school earned an "at risk" or "below average" rating on state report cards. The school's growth ratings on the report cards have hovered at "average" or "at risk" over the same period.
About 100 people turned out for a community meeting in late August to discuss ways to turn around the school. Some -- including school board member Michael Rivers, who represents St. Helena Island -- suggested replacing Keeler. Rivers said Wednesday Keeler "is a good person put into a bad situation, and did the best that she could based on what she was working with."
Keeler was placed at the school in the fall of 2009 after 20 years at Port Royal Elementary -- six of them as principal. Her move was part of a sweeping list of district reforms for four county schools with histories of unsatisfactory scores on state tests. The reforms included a longer school day and 20 extra days of class.
Rivers said he wished Keeler well in her retirement, and her departure provides an opportunity for "a season of change" at St. Helena Elementary.
School board chairman Bill Evans said Keeler deserves "a great deal of credit" for giving up her position at Port Royal Elementary, which she enjoyed, to tackle a turnaround at a school that persistently underperformed.
"I think she did wonderful work -- both at St. Helena and Port Royal elementaries -- and I appreciate what she's done," Evans said. "There are certainly some improvements being made at the school, but we've got a long way to go out there, and I think people recognize that."
Neither Evans nor Keeler believe her departure will hamper or delay efforts to boost achievement at the struggling school.
"I feel confident in the plan in place and how deeply the school and district staff and (school improvement council) are involved," Evans said.
That plan included capping class sizes at 20 students, extending instruction time and tutoring for some students, increasing training for teachers and providing reading and math coaches.
"The coaches, teachers and staff have a good, strong system in place and I have no doubt in my mind the school continue to improve and succeed," Keeler said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.