Blue Ribbon award recognizes St. Andrew’s innovative programs

MYRTLE BEACH — It takes teamwork — a combination of quality teaching, responsible students, and involved parents — to make a Blue Ribbon School. Mimi Sheets, a mother with children at St. Andrew School, added a fourth component that is unique to faith-based education: “Putting God first … the head coach.”

St. Andrew was the only private school among five South Carolina schools to receive the Blue Ribbon School award last year.

It is given to 296 schools nationwide and recognizes schools that have achieved outstanding results since the institution of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.

Award-winning schools must prove that their standardized test scores are consistently in the top 10 percent in their state or that their test scores have risen dramatically in a student population that is at least 40 percent disadvantaged. Students are tested in mathematics and reading (language arts or English).

Molly Halasz, principal, began gathering statistics on the school’s test scores in the fall of 2004. She sent the information to the Council for American Private Education. St. Andrew’s met the qualification requirements, and she was encouraged to apply through the United States Department of Education.

The application process includes an in-depth self-assessment of curriculum, teaching methods, standardized test scores, community involvement, parent participation and support, innovative programs and extracurricular activities.

One of the St. Andrew’s innovative programs is in mathematics. Two years ago, the faculty examined the math program and determined ways to both increase math instructional time and to differentiate assignments to meet individual needs. This renewed focus, plus the use of a summer math skills practice book for each student, resulted in higher math scores. Halasz explained, “We never skip math time; it is almost as sacred as religion time.”

Halasz says that the teachers use a lot of hands-on instruction to supplement the usual direct instruction, particularly when teaching science and social studies. After a recent middle school field trip to Waites Island, students created murals in the hallways depicting the beach, dunes and salt marsh ecologies.

It is particularly challenging to engage young children in the learning process. Debbie Wilfong, the school’s kindergarten teacher, taught a lesson about numbers using the story “101 Dalmatians.” On the 101st day of school, Wilfong wore a Cruella DeVil costume, and the children dressed up like dalmatian puppies. They spent the day discussing concepts and playing games related to the theme of 100.

Halasz describes the students at St. Andrew as “just ordinary kids from ordinary homes whose parents have sacrificed … It’s all about teaching responsibility and accountability.”