Four Beaufort County schools are competing for the title of "Palmetto's Finest" this year in a statewide contest by the S.C. Association of School Administrators and its partner, Carolina First Bank.
Hilton Head Island High, Beaufort Middle, Whale Branch Middle and the Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts applied for the honor and have been selected for visits from an evaluation committee this month or next.
Judges will use those visits, along with the schools' 20-page applications, to choose finalists. Two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school will win the state honor in March.
The association has given the award annually since 1978. It recognizes schools that offer excellent instruction and outstanding leaders, augmented by strong family, community and business involvement, according to the association's website.
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The last Beaufort County school to win was Shell Point Elementary in 1998, according to the website.
Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan said her school's visit is scheduled for Nov. 12. A team of three South Carolina administrators will observe teachers in their classrooms and meet with student and parent leaders. They also will inspect the appearance of the building and grounds, she said.
O'Nan said earning the state honor has been a personal goal since she became the school's principal four years ago. She believes recent improvements in state and federal achievement test scores show the school is ready to compete. For instance, Hilton Head High was the only Beaufort County school to top the state's first-attempt pass rate on the high school exit exam this year.
"Our academics have improved every year," O'Nan said. "It's been a steady climb."
Whale Branch Middle School principal Mona Lise Dickson also said academic progress makes her school a deserving winner. The school, which previously had a long history of poor performance on state-mandated tests, has made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law two years in a row.
"We have defeated the odds," Dickson said.
Gretchen Keefner, principal of Hilton Head School for the Creative Arts, said even if the school doesn't win, the application process has been worthwhile.
"When you apply for an award, it's a kind of self-assessment," she said. "It's the process that I think is the most valuable piece."
Carole Ingram, principal of Beaufort Middle School, agreed.
"The application has some areas that really make us reflect on who we are as school," she said.
Ingram said she's looking forward to getting feedback from judges who have visited excellent schools throughout the state on what her school does well and what areas could be improved.