January 2009

Learning in the Lowcountry: Part 3

Author: Paul deVere

What learning environment would you choose for your child? In southern Beaufort County, the choices are sometimes breathtaking. Do you choose a school with small student-teacher ratios, a school big enough that can field three dozen varsity athletic programs, or a real, neighborhood school?

All will require a certain investment, in time or money, or both. But, as Margot Brown, director of institutional advancement at Hilton Head Prep said, “It’s an investment that will grow, no matter the economic conditions. So I’m thinking, if I’m going to put ‘x’ number of dollars in the stock market or in my child’s education, at this point, I’m going to bank on my kid.”

Hilton Head Preparatory School
Upper School (9th-12th grades), private
Rich Basirico, Head of Upper School
Upper School student body, 180 (Dolphins)

“When families come to look over the school, or even new teachers, they ask me, “How do you like it here?” said Rich Basirico, head of upper school at Hilton Head Prep. “I tell them my three children graduated from here and I’ve been here since 1979. I think that tells the whole story. I love it here—the education it provided my children, the faculty. That’s my selling point.”

As its name implies, and from the school’s mission statement “Hilton Head Preparatory School seeks to educate college-bound students in a safe environment.”

“College, Basirico said, “is definitely one of the reasons parents send their children to the school. With good reason. There is a 100 percent college acceptance rate for graduates of Prep. The colleges include the “Ivy” names like Harvard, Cornell and Dartmouth, to South Carolina schools like Clemson, USC and Coastal Carolina. Basirico credits the college guidance counselors and the intimacy of Prep.

“Because our school is small (the counselors) can give a lot of attention to our seniors when they are making that choice about colleges. They really know the students; they can be very specific. It makes a huge difference when those letters go off to the colleges,” Basirico explained.

But there is much more to Prep than cramming for college. It’s about changing lives. Basirico gave the example of a young man who came to Prep several years ago. “He was very quiet, very timid, not outgoing at all. He was doing a presentation in history class, and Don Hite (head of performing arts) saw him and thought the student had something going. Don asked if he’d ever been in a play. He hadn’t, but Don talked him in to trying out and he got one of the leads. There he was, on stage in a major role, and everybody kind of flocked to him. So a whole different person came out. It gave him so much more confidence. The real interesting thing about it is that he went on to Rollins (Winter Park, FL) in theater,” Basirico said. “Kids get to show a different side of themselves that maybe they wouldn’t do in a much larger school.”

The same hold true for athletics. There are just more opportunities to make the team, to play in a game. Athletics are an important part of the upper school, and Basirico is at the heart of it. He’s been coaching for Prep for 24 years and is now the head coach for the boys varsity basketball team. He was honored last year when the main floor in the new Joseph B Fraser, Jr. Field House was named after him.

Basirico said that choosing Prep because of its college acceptance rate is understandable, even admirable, but he felt it should go beyond that. “We should look at what they are doing after they get out of college. One of our students is the emergency room doctor at the [Hilton Head] hospital. We have several doctors, lawyers, community leaders, musicians, writers,” Basirico said “When you look at our track record, it is truly amazing what our kids have accomplished.”

Tuition: 9th-11th grade, $15,295.00. 12th grade, $15,495. $1 million financial aid program. www.hhprep.org

Hilton Head Island High School
9th-12th grades, public
Elizabeth “Amanda” O’Nan, Principal
Student body: 1,168 (Seahawks)

Elizabeth “Amanda” O’Nan, principal of Hilton Head Island High School (Seahawks), thinks the school should be the tail wagging the dog. “Kids come here from 7:45 [a.m.] to 2:30 [p.m.] to get their education, but at the same time we’ve got so many kids that do so many awesome things after the school day, or as part of the school day, that may not tie into calculus or English 4 or chemistry. They become part of the Seahawk mentality—they’re involved. They have ownership; they have a lot of pride,” O’Nan said.

She believes this is Hilton Head’s high school, and that stands for something. She wants the community to come in (the school) and support the students. “Come in and see all the great things we’re doing. We’re a community organization. We ought to be a leader in this community A lot of great people walk these halls Monday through Friday,” she said.

As an example, O’Nan cited something as seemingly mundane as bathrooms. Yet every high school parent—and high school student—would understand the significance of this. “Smoking in the bathrooms has been out of the administrators’ hands now for over a year. Kids don’t tolerate kids smoking in bathrooms. You walk into bathrooms you don’t see vandalism. There’s a lot more ownership. They’re saying, ‘This is my school. I’m proud to be a Seahawk,’” said O’Nan, describing what she called the “Seahawk mentality” and “community spirit” that is on display.

Her focus for the students at Hilton Head Island High School is to meet students, both academically and personally, wherever they are. “Whatever their passion is, that’s where we need to get them to go. It may not be that Ivy League college, but let’s get them there. If they want the military, let’s help get them there. The statistics will say we had 70-some percent of our seniors go on to college last year. But four years of college may not be the best for every one of our students. Some are going to be awesome mechanics. So, I tell students, ‘Whatever it is you plan to do after you walk across that stage, let’s help get you there,’” O’Nan said.

For students who plan to go to college, the school offers AP (advanced placement) courses and the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Program). Some of these courses are recognized as equivalent to college level courses, and colleges may award entering students with first-year credit. “We also have dual enrollment at USCB and TCL,” O’Nan said, which allows seniors to take a freshman course at either college while still attending Hilton Head Island High.

The school has 36 athletic venues for students and 20 clubs. “We’ve brought back crew this year and it’s going strong,” said O’Nan. There has also been an impressive sports website (www.hiltonheadhighsports.com) created that will keep fans—and students—updated on all team and club activities.

O’Nan said that whatever learning style the student is good with, whatever passion he or she has, she wants to find out and get the student there. “We want to push students, but we want to push them toward their passion.”


Bluffton High School
9th-12th grades, public
Robert Anderson, Principal
Student body: 1,400 (Bobcats)

When Robert Anderson took the position as the Bluffton High School prinicipal two years ago, it was because of the cluster school concept. “There is elementary school, middle school, Boys and Girls Club and high school all on the same campus. I had the best opportunity. I have a son who is a middle school student, a daughter who is an elementary school student, and a wife who’s a middle school teacher. We’re all within 400 yards of each other,” Anderson said. He has a three-year-old in daycare just down the road at Cross Schools.

Though a school population of 1,400 is large by Beaufort County standards, before Anderson came to the Lowcountry, he was principal of a high school in New Jersey for 20 years with a student body of 2,800. This is his second year at Bluffton High.

“I really like being a high school principal,” Anderson said. “I believe that high school education is really where it makes it or breaks it.” He believes that, outside of the decision to marry, a student is going to make the biggest decision in his or her life. “Where you go [to school] dictates what’s going to happen to you in your professional career. So this is a place where (students) have gone from ages 14 to 18, from a child to an adult. They are now responsible for their behavior. So many things happen in high school. It’s just a great opportunity to work with kids,” he said.

Anderson said the identity of Bluffton High is probably different than most. “I would have to say there is an energy about this place, and that energy is focused on students who enjoy being here—students who enjoy being on teams, in activities. When I took the job, one of the things that I said was that the best day I could ever have is: when everybody’s in school on time, everybody is prepared for lessons and nobody goes home on time because they’re here and they want to stay. We have more and more kids participating in band, athletics, the robotics team. This is a very involved high school and we’ve become more involved in your community,” Anderson said.

To that end, he helped get the student newspaper going, the yearbook, class council, student government, student advisory committee. He wants a gradual increase in higher expectations for the whole school. “It’s selfish. I want this to be a blue ribbon; I want my kids to have the best possible education in their high school years. I want this to be the best school in the county,” Anderson explained. When he first arrived he told the students, “I will treat you as I treat my own children. I have high expectations for them; I want you to do well. Yes, I want you all to succeed.”

Another facet about Bluffton High School that Anderson said makes it different is that it is a neighborhood school. The school campus sits right in the middle of a number of large residential developments: Pine Crest, Hampton Hall, The Farm, Shell Point and others. “Kids walk to school here. At the end of the day, when our golf teams are ready to go to golf practice (we have a girls team and a boys team), they walk across the street. They are right at Pine Crest, and it is wonderful.”

The school has 32 competitive sports teams and a number of special clubs, including the Bluffton High Film Institute, the Model United Nations, and the Robotics Club.

Anderson believes the school is meeting the challenge new technologies present to students and teachers alike. “We have six computer labs, with about 30 computers in each one. We have computers in the library with access to the Internet with software that guards against inappropriate sites. So much of today’s education is how kids use information. We’ve spent a great deal of time regurgitating information. We’ve moved well away from that. We’re asking questions that kids have to process—get additional information, then evaluate that information, and apply it in a different setting,” Anderson explained. Then he smiled and said, “I’d love to be a student today.”

“So much happens to them [students] in such a short time,” Anderson said. “They go from being frightened of this big building to owning it. They drive a car to school and have their own spot. Or they can walk.”


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