After a productive 2013, schools look to sustain district’s positive momentum

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By Beaufort County School District Superintendent Jeff Moss

This holiday season has special significance for me because it marks the end of my first six months as Beaufort County’s school superintendent — and the end of a calendar year that saw significant improvements in student achievement across our district.

Boosted by five consecutive years of steadily improving student test scores and on-time high school graduation rates, the district earned its first-ever Good rating on its annual 2013 report card issued by the South Carolina Department of Education. That’s a dramatic improvement from the district’s rating of Below Average in 2009.

This year also marked the first year since Report Cards were first published in 2001 that no district school was rated Below Average or At Risk.  All of our schools were rated Excellent, Good or Average.

In separate federal accountability reports, 61 percent of our schools rated an A or B, and the district as a whole received a score of 82.1, a B.  The federal system was revised in 2012 to give schools A-F letter grades.

During their initial attempt last spring, 84.2 percent of Beaufort County test-takers — an all-time high — passed both sections of the high school exit exam. That represented a 2.8 percentage-point improvement over 2012’s passing rate of 81.4 and a 7.1 percentage-point improvement over 2011.

Graduating seniors in the Class of 2013 earned $22.8 million in college scholarships, also an all-time high.  And 19 district schools won 2013 Palmetto Gold or Palmetto Silver Awards for student academic achievement from the South Carolina Department of Education.

Two months ago, Okatie Elementary School was named a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.  One month later, Bluffton High School and Okatie Elementary School were named as semi-finalists for the 2014 Palmetto’s Finest Awards.  Just two years ago, Hilton Head Island High and Beaufort Middle were winners of Palmetto’s Finest Schools Awards.  Beaufort is one of only four districts in the award’s 34-year history to have had two winners in the same year.

Considerable financial savings continue to accumulate from the installation of cutting-edge technology designed to conserve electrical power and water.  The district also has taken advantage of low interest rates by refinancing previous bond sales and saving $8 million in taxpayer dollars over the past two years.

Looking forward to 2014, the Board of Education has approved a proposal to expand and diversify the school district’s menu of learning choices for students.  A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t address the fact that all children learn differently.  The more learning choices schools offer to students and parents, the more successful they’re likely to be.

One school might offer a dual language immersion approach and teach students in two languages. Another school might offer an arts-infused program where students interested in the visual arts, music and theater would still learn math, English and the other fundamentals, but those lessons would be done with an eye toward infusing the arts in lesson plans and class activities.

All schools in the district will continue to offer “core academic courses” in subjects such as science, math, English, language arts, technology and world languages.  But in addition, each school will work on developing its own “speciality,” a particular teaching approach or area of focus that will make it stand out.

Also in 2014, we will complete the planning stages and begin building two new schools — one serving grades PreK-8 and the other serving grades 9-12 — aimed at alleviating overcrowding in the fast-growing Bluffton community.

Although student achievement continues to improve at a steady pace, we are far from our goal. Like other school districts across the nation, we continue to be challenged by gaps in achievement between minority and nonminority students and between high-poverty and more affluent students. Poverty rates among our students continue to increase, as do the numbers of students we serve who are homeless.

But our district’s steady, across-the-board academic improvements are encouraging, and I am confident that if all of us continue to work hard — educators, students, parents, community partners, business partners and volunteers — we can maintain our momentum and make 2014 just as academically successful as 2013.