Graduation rate major highlight; challenges lie ahead

in Voices by

By Jeff Moss

The Beaufort County School District experienced significant academic improvements in 2016 along with financial efficiencies that continue to save taxpayer dollars.

The year’s biggest news was a sixth consecutive year of improvement in the district’s high school graduation rate, which has reached an all-time high of 83.4 percent and now exceeds the state and most recently reported national measurements.

The on-time graduation rate is the percentage of students earning a diploma “on time” in four years. It’s a high-profile indicator because if all of a school system’s components are working well, from kindergarten through high school graduation, then more students should earn their diplomas in four years.

Six straight years of increasing graduation rates is solid proof of the district’s improvement across the board, and our educators, students, parents and entire community should be proud of that.

Class of 2016 graduating seniors earned $30.9 million in college scholarships, also an all-time high.

The district’s average SAT score has improved by 61 points over the past five years, and African-American seniors have reduced the achievement gap with white seniors by improving their scores by 87 points while white students improved by 30 points.

Fifty-five percent of our high school students taking Advanced Placement courses scored high enough in 2016 to qualify for college credit, another all-time high for the district. The number of students completing college-level courses while still in high school has increased from 308 to 532 in just two years.

Roughly nine out of 10 district 11th-graders scored high enough on the 2016 statewide administration of WorkKeys exams to qualify for certificates that they can use to apply for jobs anywhere in the nation.  BCSD students outperformed their peers from most other districts.

The district has created “schools of choice” in all buildings. Parents can apply to send their children to any academic program in the district, regardless of where they live. For the 2016-17 year, more than 2,300 students are enrolled in schools outside their attendance zones.  In addition, our Connect2Learn program has put a mobile computer in the hands of every student in grades K-12.

The district has added 260 full-day prekindergarten slots over the past two years, which has allowed schools to reduce or even eliminate waiting lists of at-risk children who need focused attention before they start classes. The district earned the statewide Champions for Children Award from the Institute of Child Success for its efforts to improve early childhood education.

Two new cutting-edge schools serve the fast-growing Bluffton community:  PreK-grade 8 River Ridge Academy and May River High School.

National publications rank two district high schools among South Carolina’s best. Hilton Head Island High is ranked No. 5 in South Carolina by U.S. News and World Report, and Bluffton High is ranked No. 7. In addition, Hilton Head Island High ranked No. 6 in South Carolina and Bluffton High No. 12 in The Washington Post’s annual listing of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools.”

Our college scholarship program – the Building a Better Beaufort Scholarship, also called “B3” – pays up to two years of tuition costs at the Technical College of the Lowcountry for qualified local high school graduates.

We are dramatically expanding career and technology courses designed to prepare students for high-paying jobs and industry certifications in rapidly emerging fields. New high-tech facilities are operating at Battery Creek High and May River High.

We continue to see significant savings from smart financial decisions in recent years, as well as from the installation of cutting-edge technology that conserves electrical power and water.

The one-penny educational sales tax referendum last month wasn’t successful, but the district’s needs – how to accommodate an additional 3,000 students over the next decade as well as replace outdated roofs and HVAC systems – remain unchanged. A key challenge for the board of education in 2017 will be determining how to meet those needs.

Other challenges will include addressing achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, as well as recruiting teachers to work in Beaufort County despite our highest-in-the-state cost of living.

Beaufort County’s schools continue to benefit from broad community support. We have dramatically improved the district’s security screening process for school volunteers and, at the same time, increased the number of volunteers from 1,300 to more than 6,500 in the last two years.

That kind of community support, coupled with the creativity and determination of our hard-working students and educators, make me confident that the improvements we saw in 2016 will continue in 2017.

Jeff Moss is superintendent of the Beaufort County School District.