October 2008

Learning in the Lowcountry: Part 1

Author: Paul deVere

One of the greatest challenges facing parents in the Lowcountry today is the education of their children—from pre-school to college. Parents ask, “What is best for my child?” and “What can I afford?” Private and parochial schools offer alternatives to the public system, but come at a cost. Beaufort County schools are the option for the majority, yet even in the public system there is choice.

In this multi-issue series, CH2 will offer a brief profile of some of the features that distinguish one school from another and one environment from another.

One thing is clear about educators in the Lowcountry: There is no lack of enthusiasm. The leaders at every school visited were bubbling over with energy and a kind of quiet fierceness that their students would succeed, would meet the high standards and goals they set for themselves. Beliefs about how children learn are strong and focused. Because the state mandates the basic curriculum, the differences are really more apparent in “how” and the “focus.”

Hilton Head Preparatory School, K-12, Private, Hilton Head Island
Student body: 465

“We have a strong college preparatory curriculum and a very strong college guidance office. Plus it goes back to expectations. When you expect excellence, everyone strives that much harder for it,” said Margot Brown, director of institutional advancement. “And our faculty works very hard to help our students succeed. They keep them focused, motivated and help them through every bump along the way. Our teachers and college guidance staff advocate hard for our kids through the college process and that, coupled with our strong curriculum, translates into superior college placement, 100 percent of the time.”

Hilton Head Preparatory School, or simply “Prep” as everyone knows it, came into being when Sea Pines Academy (founded in 1965) and May River Academy (founded in Bluffton in 1971) merged in the1985-86 school year.

Prep is an Island institution. Though the student body is relatively small (465 for the school year 2007-08), the school continually seems to exceed expectations. Graduates continually get into excellent schools: Harvard, Cornell, William and Mary, Fordham. Sports teams turn in state championships—four in the 2007-08 school year.

Last year, the school opened the $6.5 million, 20,600 square foot Joseph B. Fraser, Jr. Field House and Graham Wellness Center that was paid for by the school’s Capital Campaign. Prep is now into its second year of a five-year strategic plan to lift the academic bar even higher.

“Even though our alumni are from May River Academy and Sea Pines Academy as well as Hilton Head Prep, we have their support as their alma mater. The names you hear about in the community, who were early leaders of the island, all sent their kids to our school, and their affinity is still strong,” said Brown. “We received overwhelming support from May River and Sea Pines alumni and parents of alumni during our Tradition of Excellence Capital Campaign that raised more than $6.5 million for the Joseph B. Fraser, Jr. Field House and our endowment fund. Our traditions run deep and the support of the Sea Pines Academy and May River Academy run deep.”

Tuition: 1-6, $14,295.00. 7-12, $15,295.00. Financial aid available. www.hhprep.org.

Cross Schools, 18 months – 8, Independent, Bluffton
Student body: 450

“We offer a very high academic program with low student to teacher ratios. So where most classrooms in the public schools can be 20 to one, we’re staying at about 11 to one. In K-4; if there are more than 15 children in the class, then we have two teachers in the classroom,” said Shawn Young, headmistress. “Kids are getting a lot of attention, a lot of one-on-one instruction, which allows for a lot or remediation, if needed, but also a large amount of enrichment. That is a huge plus for us. Our curriculum is based on national standards: math, science, social studies, language arts. They also have Spanish, physical education, art, music and technology as well.”

Cross schools opened its door in 1999 with a total student body of seven. Parents at Cross Episcopal Church in Bluffton wanted a school based on both academic and spiritual development and were willing to take on the challenge. Response was almost immediate. Greater Bluffton’s population exploded, the public schools became overcrowded. In 2004 the new Cross Schools moved to its new, 77-acre campus on Buckwalter Parkway. This past October, the school opened a new wing that will house pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and middle school classrooms. Plans are to add 9th and 10th grades next school year. Young said that because Cross School is an outreach ministry, a student doesn’t even have to be a Christian to attend. “We take anybody who wants to come who meets our admissions criteria.” But all students have a religion class once a week and attend chapel once a week.

Financial assistance is available due to an annual giving campaign and fundraising events throughout the year, like the “Pearls to Pluff Mud” BBQ, Oyster Roast and silent auction to be held November 15 at the Shell Hall Clubhouse.

On the small classes, Young said, “You have time to teach. There aren’t discipline problems. There is no bureaucracy. There can be a personal touch in the style of teaching. We can go outside the academic box, use some creativity. Not all children learn the same way. We have small enough classes so the teacher can recognize the learning style of every child.”

Tuition: K, $6,450; 1-8, $6,750. Financial assistance available. www.crossschools.org.

*Hilton Head Island International Baccalaureate Elementary. 1-5.
Student Body:700+

First things first. What does “International Baccalaureate (IB)” mean? IB is an international organization that provides a curriculum and a philosophy of learning that, according to its mission statement, is meant “to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” There are 2,400 plus schools in 129 countries that are authorized IB World Schools. The IB designation isn’t something you buy off the shelf. A school must go through a trial period and is trained on the IB approach to learning.

“It’s an international education. Even if they never leave Beaufort County, it’s still important that our kids have an international perspective. It’s important for us to know what’s happening in our country and the on other side of the world. That’s one focus,” said Beth Fox, coordinator for the IB primary years program (PYP).

“The other thing that is important to us is that this is a school of inquiry. Our preferred method of teaching is through inquiry. That supposes that we may not have all the answers, but what we do have is a way to find things. We value our kids as learners right along with us. We lead them; we are the guide on the side,” she said.

“The third thing is that we hold, at the center of our program, the student profile, she added. “We actually publicize what we want our kids to become. Being knowledgeable is one of them. That’s certainly something that the state holds near and dear. But there are other qualities, too. The child must be principled, caring, open-minded. In IB you teach children (these qualities), not just hope they pick it up. Knowledge in and of itself is valuable, but it doesn’t make a complete person.”

While the IBPYP covers all the bases the state requires, it integrates such things as reading, writing and math into the six “units of inquiry” that students will use throughout their five primary years. For example, one of the units is titled “Who We Are.” In first grade, this ties into family histories, how generations are connected, how families are organized.

By the time students gets to fifth grade, they have expanded that “inquiry” much more deeply. By now they are anthropologists and are focusing on the earliest people of North America, the cultural clash when Native Americans came up against waves of Europeans, and what effect that has on modern day life.

The school also offers single gender classes. “Single gender education has been on the rise and South Carolina is the leading state,” said Jill McAden, principal. “Some boys learn better when they’re in an all-male class. It was the same with girls. It was a very successful program last year, with one caveat. There were more parents interested (it’s parents’ choice) than we could offer. We brought it down into 4th and 3rd grade class. We follow test scores to see if they are advancing. Data from last year showed that girls made greater gains in math and science and boys had greater gains in English language arts.”

Beaufort County School System. Admission is open to all. http://web.beaufort.k12.sc.us/education/school/school.php?sectionid=16.

Hilton Head Island Elementary School for Creative Arts, 01-5
Student Body: 700+

“In the School for Creative Arts, we believe the arts are important to all children. All children should be exposed to art, music, dance and theater. The arts force children to use all areas of the brain, because it is visual, auditory, the music, the movement, the coordination, the stamina,” said Gretchen Keefner, principal. “Unfortunately, kids don’t get exposed to all those art forms. Sometimes some of the arts, especially dance and theater, are opportunities only some children get to have if their parents are able to get them into those programs, and if those programs exist in their community.”

Keefner continued, “When a teacher sits down and says it’s in the planning process: What do I want this child to learn? State says they need to learn, for example in 3rd grade, that there are certain people in South Carolina history that are important; and kids need to identify certain people, people that were important in the settling of South Carolina. One of our teachers might ask herself: Is there something in the arts that I can do when I teach this lesson so children might remember it? She may use theater in her classroom, so when students do research of those famous people, when they demonstrate what they’ve learned, they may use theater and become that person.”

Several years ago, when Hilton Head Elementary became two schools, IB and School for the Creative Arts, then principal, Hank Noble, described the difference between the two. Parents wanted to know which one was better and how could they pick one or the other. Since both schools teach the South Carolina standards, Noble said that it was like ice cream. Some people like chocolate and some people like vanilla. But it’s all still just ice cream.

The School for the Creative Arts is a part of The Arts in Basic Curriculum (ABC) Project, which is cooperatively directed by the South Carolina Arts Commission, the South Carolina Department of Education and the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Winthrop University.

“This is an academic program that uses the arts to help children learn the traditional academics,” said Keefner. “We also view the arts themselves as academic areas. We believe state and national standards in theater and drama and dance are as important as language arts, math, science, social studies.”

Beaufort County School System. Admission is open to all. http://web.beaufort.k12.sc.us/education/school/school.php?sectiondetailid=63&.

Sea Pines Montessori Academy, 18 months-6, Private. Hilton Head Island
Student Body: 226

“One of our biggest things is to build self esteem for a child. When a child comes through the program, we prepare them for life,” said Darcie Patrick, head of school. “They leave in 6th grade ready to take on any challenge. And every day we give them a challenge. Independent study is huge. Even at 18 months, when they come out of a car, they walk in the hall by themselves; they walk to the classroom by themselves. With independence comes self esteem. Any child in Montessori could leave and be successful.”

Dr. Maria Montessori opened her first school in Italy in 1907 and, at least for Montessori teachers and students, the world of education hasn’t been the same since. Concepts such as establishing a homelike environment for students, believing that each child learns at his or her own individual pace, and multi-age classrooms (remember the one room school house), are easily accepted.

But other Montessori beliefs, like not grading work in the traditional manner or that children are capable of self-directed learning, have caused many educators to give pause or dismiss the methods entirely. Yet studies over the past century have shown the method can be successful, and recent studies indicate higher performance in science in Montessori-trained students and more positive social relations. At the Academy, students not only master traditional subjects (state-required), but second languages, including Spanish and Chinese.

The Academy’s roots date back to 1968—the first Montessori school in South Carolina—when Mary Fraser, wife of Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser, established Sea Pines Montessori School for 33 students. In 2006, Sea Pines Montessori School and Island Montessori Day School merged and the Academy was created.

“We’re a viable educational option,” said Margo Fletcher, director of education. “We do have a different value system. We look at the whole child, from emotional, social, physical, academic, just everything combined; and social is just as important as academic. These children are developing into leaders. They are going to believe in something, whatever that profession is. Whether someone is studying algae on a leaf, going to get the cure for cancer, or if they become janitor, they’re going to be the best at that. They are going to do that with integrity, leadership, with sound moral values. They are going to do everything they do with pride.”

Tuition: Primary, full-day, $6,350; Lower Elementary, full-day, $8,850; Upper Elementary, $8,950. Financial assistance available. www.http://spma.com

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