District holds back-to-school rally

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Beaufort educators congratulated, challenged by state business leaders

More than 2,400 Beaufort County educators jammed into the Bluffton High School gymnasium yesterday for a back-to-school rally to celebrate the opening of the 2011-12 school year.
Teachers, administrators and school staff cheered the announcement of the five finalists for district teachers of the year: Lois Lewis, Bluffton Middle School; Donna Fonseca, Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center; Christine Gray, Hilton Head Island High School; Jackie Wheeler, Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts, and CaTia Gilbert, Whale Branch Middle School.
The 2011-2012 District Teacher of the Year will be announced in September.
Educators were celebrated but also challenged by two of the state’s top business leaders: Jim Reynolds, CEO of Total Comfort Solutions and chairman of the board of directors for the  South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and Otis Rawl, President and CEO of the State Chamber.
“Many people think South Carolina is 49th where education is concerned, but they’re wrong,” Reynolds said. “We’re actually 37th and moving up. We have pockets of light all across this state, and we have to let people know about it.”
Reynolds also pointed out critical education challenges to improving South Carolina’s economy and overall quality of life, particularly reducing dropout rates, improving high school graduation rates and improving students’ reading skills.
“Thirty-eight percent of our third-graders in South Carolina read below grade level, and that is simply unacceptable,” Reynolds said.  “We have got to fix that.”
Rawl pointed out that while South Carolinians should be realistic about facing education  challenges, they also need to recognize and praise the undeniable progress that has been made.  “As a state, we’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Rawl said.  “We have to work on improving our image around the nation and around the world.”
Beaufort County Superintendent Valerie Truesdale noted this year’s rally theme  — “Education is everybody’s business” — and she reinforced the messages of Rawl and Reynolds.
“Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce,” Truesdale said, “and our business partners have a powerful message for educators — that each one of us can and should be a powerful ambassador for excellence in learning.  I can’t tell you how uplifting it was to see and hear and feel the enthusiasm and energy and positive attitude in this gym today.”
This year’s rally was kicked off by student leaders from all five district high schools: Hannah Durbin from Beaufort High, Alexis Miller from Battery  Creek High, Katie Ryan from Bluffton High, Sabrina Drammis from Hilton Head High and Vanessa Scott from Whale Branch Early College High.
Also attending the rally were chamber of commerce presidents Bill Miles from Hilton Head Island-Bluffton and Blakely Williams, a large contingent of area business, community and law enforcement leaders, and elected leaders from the Board of Education and Beaufort County Council.