December 2008

Learning in the Lowcountry: Part 2

Author: paul deVere

The variety of educational opportunities available to students—and parents—in the Lowcountry is nothing short of exceptional. What may be most challenging for parents is that, in terms of academics, there is little that could be called “traditional.” How students learn, the tools used in learning (the Internet, “Smart Boards”) have changed everything.
Consider this: In 2006, Google (the Internet search engine) averaged 2.7 billion searches a month. In 2008, that has increased to 6 billion. Or this: In 2006, all of India’s college graduates (3.1 million) spoke English. Or this: In about eight years the number one English-speaking country will be… China. Check out “Shift Happens” on to see what our children are facing in today’s social and economic world.

The head of the Middle School at Hilton Head Prep, Nathan Stevens, described the job of today’s teachers as “developing 21st Century learners.” Hilton Head Middle School principal, Sherry DeSimone, said, “You (the teacher) can’t be the keeper of all the knowledge anymore. You have to be able to teach kids how to find it, to be hungry for it. You have to teach them how to learn.” In Bluffton, H.E. McCracken Middle School principal, Phillip Shaw, said, “The success of our entire nation depends on an educated population. I’m not interested in anything more than what you know and what you need to know.”

These are extraordinary times. Fortunately, parents of Lowcountry students have extraordinary choices.

Hilton Head Preparatory School
Middle School (6th-8th grades), Private
Nathan Stevens, Head of Middle School
Middle School student body: 114

“There are so many changes happening in these three years. In school, we see the sixth graders who are all obsessed with lockers, then moving to eighth graders who are starting to try to figure out who they are. We have to deal with the social and emotional stuff sometimes even before we get to the content,” said Nathan Stevens, head of Middle School. “It’s about developing a skill set for both upper school and life. I think we can, in the middle, really focus in on the skill set they need to leave here with.”

At the beginning of 2008, the board of trustees at Hilton Head Prep implemented a five-year strategic plan for the school which, in large part, addressed the school’s academic program. While the plan is influencing the entire school, the investment the board committed to affected the middle school in a dramatic way.

“The ‘lynch pin’ was the board’s investment,” Stevens said. “We have been able to create an environment and structure where we can develop teaming. We have grade level teams in which the three teachers, who are also advisors for that grade, have common planning time. These teams and advisors meet at least twice a week and talk about the needs of individual students. I think (our attention to) the individual student is the thing that sets us apart.”

“We’re teaching to our middle schoolers as individuals. They are evaluated at the start of the year. We determine how they best learn, and these teams within the grades know each student,” said Margot Brown, director of institutional advancement. “Because we’re such a small school with these great team approaches, we can bring each kid along at his or her own ability and speed. But every kid will improve.”

Brown admits that private education does come at a cost. But if a student is academically qualified, financial assistance is available. “We provide over $1 million in financial aid every year. People don’t know that. People think, ‘If I can’t afford it, I can’t go there.’ Our board feels it important to have a diverse community—economically, racially, it’s important for our kids be exposed to the real world. It’s important to our board to allow everybody the opportunity to get a Prep education.”

Tuition: 6th grade, $14,295.00. 7th and 8th grade, $15,295.00.

Hilton Head Middle School
Sherry DeSimone, Principal
Student body: 950

Hilton Head Middle turned 20 this year, and it was due for an “extreme makeover.” Thanks to a school bond referendum passed in April, the school now has new bathrooms, a wooden gym floor, new computer lab and a new, safer entrance, among other things. Principal Sherry DeSimone is pleased with the results, but her focus is on the school as a community. “A lot of teachers take (activities) beyond the classroom to clubs after school,” she said. As examples, she pointed to athletics, a chess club, National Honor Society, a model United Nations team, drama club, band, ceramics. “It’s another connection, and we always want to keep them connected. That brings the kids back around to taking more ownership in their school, so it’s not just a place where ‘I learn my math and English’; but it’s where I also enjoy being, where my passion is,’” she explained.

“A traditional middle school is about a small team of teachers working with a small group of kids, building relationships with each other. You have a math, science, social studies, language arts and reading teacher, all working with the same 100 kids. They kind of stay within that same area; they get a close knit community.

“But it becomes more of a challenge to do that when you have certain things you want to offer. Like your gifted and talented program or we want to do honors level courses or we want to group our kids according to what we call a MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) score. It’s a test that we take three times a year. It’s more of a formative assessment. It gives us direction for each individual kid, for what they’ve mastered, what they need to learn, and what will stretch them to learn,” DeSimone said.

Technology, she explained, is so much a part of the process today. “We now have interactive ‘whiteboards.’ Every teacher has a lap top. The teacher is becoming more of a facilitator (because) the type of kid we are teaching now—you have to teach them the way they learn,” she said.

“They still learn how to multiply, how to divide, history, language arts. But you want to teach them how to think, how to use that knowledge. Our ultimate goal is that they are productive citizens and they can make an impact to make our world a better place; so with our ever-changing world of technology, you have to use it to your advantage,” she said.

Heritage Academy, Private, 5-12, Hilton Head Island
Dr. Mary Polite, Head of School
Gloria Shoemaker, Head of School
Tina Sprouse, Director of Admissions
Student body: 170

Once (and maybe still) locally known as “the golf school” or “the tennis school,” Heritage Academy has added other extracurricular ‘passions’ that students can participate in—such as theatre, dance, art, equestrian. And “passions” are what the school is all about.

In describing the typical student at Heritage Academy, head of school, Mary Polite said, “These kids just have a different lens on the world. It’s bigger than most kids perceive the world to be. Most of our high school students are pretty mature. They’re sort of past high school even though they’re still in high school. One graduate told me, ‘If I was in a regular setting, I’d feel like the odd duck.’”

“When you have a child like that, you can see they’re a little different than a child that isn’t passionate about something. You may have children that are passionate about lots of things, but when you’ve got a child that might be quite driven, finding an opportunity to give that child the ability to really grow and mature and travel… I think it’s wonderful to give a child that opportunity for parents who can do that,” Polite explained.

Students come to the academy from all over the world. Twenty-seven countries and 17 states are represented. “They are doing things that I am in awe of. Could I, as an eighth grader, have gone to China and been the best player for my country in golf? Nope,” Polite said with a laugh.

The level of commitment Academy students must have is impressive. Young golfers at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA) spend six or seven days a week in training. It is also a commitment for parents. Not only are most of the students far away from home, tuition at the IJGA, which includes boarding, meals, transportation and other necessities, is $47,000 for a full year’s program. Tuition at the Heritage Academy is additional. Some use their sport or other “passion” to get into college. For those who want to go on to college, the acceptance rate is 100 percent. A few turn professional.

This year, the Heritage Academy is offering middle school for the first time. “Our middle school is first in the region to use the model we’re using, a multi-age interdisciplinary curriculum,” Polite said. “The point is to move them as far along through the curriculum as possible. It is just a fun program to watch—kids not ready developmentally for high school but who had it with the single teacher sitting in a classroom with one grade. Kids are making great leaps between ages 10 and 14. They’ll never make those leaps at that speed ever again. Because of the size of our classes, kids can just soar.”
Base tuition: $11,700.

Hilton Head Christian Academy, College Preparatory Christian School, K-12,
Hilton Head Island
Mike Lindsey, Headmaster
Robin Smith, Marketing Director
Trevor Creeden, Guidance Director
Student body: 479

Founded in 1979, Hilton Head Christian Academy has come a long way from its original home—a trailer on Mathews Drive. The school, which is situated on a 13-acre campus, is wrapping up a capital campaign this month for a new 13,500-square-foot middle school building, a middle school science and computer lab, and a lower school science classroom.

“We’re not funded or affiliated with a church,” explained marketing director, Robin Smith. “About 40 different churches in the area are represented. We do have guidelines that it be a fundamental Christian church. The other thing we require is a statement of faith that just says, because our school is based on Biblical values emphasizing the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, these tenets of faith our family believes, our family supports. Anther part of (acceptance) is that families are involved in local churches—a pastor’s recommendation letter that says they are part of a congregation.”

The academy is associated with the South Carolina Independent Schools Association (SCISA) and the Association of Christian School International (ACSI). Along with state required curriculum, included are daily Bible classes, weekly Chapels, and the faculty integrates Christianity into daily teaching by viewing all subject matter through that belief. “We also have Bible study groups that meet once a week, though it’s not required. I have the junior girls. It’s just another way to connect when you’re not in the classroom. My girls meet at 6:45 in the morning at Atlanta Bread because they want to. It’s a huge commitment for them,” Smith said.

Guidance director, Trevor Creeden said that in the last three or four years the school has made accommodations for students who are enrolled in the various sports academies on the island but want their academics to reflect their Christian faith. “We’ve made it possible for them to take the minimum amount of courses we require and help them do their specialty,” he explained.

In reference to the academy’s role as a college preparatory school, of those students who want to go on to college, the acceptance rate has been 100 percent, Creeden said.

“What stands out, I think, is the blending college prep and, when you add the element of Christian focus to it, you’ve got something you can’t match. It’s the whole package—teaching the academics and the spirit,” said Smith.

Tuition: Grades 1-4: $8,540; Grades 5-12: $9,250; K (5 years old): $7,400
Financial assistance available.

H.E. McCracken Middle School, Bluffton
Phillip Shaw, Principal
Student body: 1,210

H.E. McCracken in the biggest middle school in Beaufort County and, as principal, Phillip Shaw, said, “It’s just a fairly large middle school, period.” There are 81 teachers and a staff that includes three guidance counselors, three assistant principals, a full-time social worker, full-time mental health worker, full-time school resource officer, a behavior management specialist, school nurse and school psychologist.

“Being a big school, we have a lot of opportunities to do different things, and we have some challenges,” Shaw said. “What’s very interesting is that it’s an inverted bell curve, socioeconomically. We have some kids who are at or below poverty level and kids with extreme affluence. So it’s a neat place in the fact that all these kids come together and they are almost seamless with one another, which I love. Some places can get very polarized, very cliquish. These kids don’t see any difference,” he explained.

Shaw has also instituted the team concept for middle school. “The concept of how middle schoolers learn best talks about teaming. We moved everyone to teams. My entire sixth grade has common planning. Inside that sixth grade there are five people divided into three five-person teams. We can offer a reading class and a writing class. Now I have a class that focuses on vocabulary, grammar, and the ability to read,” Shaw said. “We house all sixth graders in one area. A sixth grader never has to cross the path of an eighth grader. That’s how you make big schools smaller.”

Because of the large school population (funding is based on the number of students) Shaw said he can offer more, like a science Olympiad, the robotics team and a full athletic program. “When I can field 74 children in student council, or when student council, at Christmas time, wants to do ‘pay war’—pennies against each team—they can raise $3,000 for charity with pennies, then two weeks later raise another $2,000 for an angel tree and gifts to the needy,” said Shaw. “Imagine a middle school raising $5,000 at Christmas and giving it to the community. Is that amazing?”

Shaw’s goal is to be the best middle school. “While the high stakes accountability movement and testing have impacted education, I’ve never lost sight of the child; for me, it’s all about every single child. While we’ve had tremendous success in our test scores, it is about the individual child. I remind myself every day,” said Shaw. “I’m going to help any child who walks through the door. The Supreme Court made a decision a long time ago. My job is to educate them, period. The success of our entire nation depends on an educated population.” 

Beaufort County School System, admission open to all.’171

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