Aiken County Public Schools achieved a statewide honor on the 2019 district report card ratings with 80% of the district's schools showing gains and improvements in student achievement.

The district had the highest percentage of excellent, good and average schools among the state's 10 largest districts, according to a news release from the Aiken County Public School District. The S.C. Department of Education released the report card ratings Tuesday.

The academic gains in the report card ratings show Aiken County Public Schools are “succeeding at record levels” as all three instructional levels saw marked improvement, according to the release. Even “more noteworthy” is what’s missing from this year’s report card ratings: No Aiken County Public Schools rated “Unsatisfactory,” according to the release.

“There are so many things to celebrate it’s difficult to know where to start,” interim Superintendent King Laurence said in the release. “Obviously, we’re thrilled with the significant increases in overall performance ratings. It’s clear evidence that we’re delivering on the promise that in Aiken County there will be no ‘have and have not’ schools.

“Performance has increased at every single level – elementary, middle and high school – and for the first time in a very long time, we have no schools rated as ‘Unsatisfactory’ in Aiken County.”

In 2018, seven Aiken County public schools rated in the bottom two categories: “Below Average” and “Unsatisfactory.” This year, only one school is rated at “Below Average,” missing the “Average” cut point score by just three points. The gains mark a 150% improvement year over year, according to the release.

This level of growth in the district is “all the more impressive by its timing,” according to the release.

The state revised performance criteria to more rigorous levels as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The difficulty of exceeding year-to-year school performance has increased to better prepare South Carolina students for the 21st-century workplace, the college classroom and a global economy, according to the release.

Best in more than a decade

Some schools, including Oakwood-Windsor Elementary, J.D. Lever Elementary, Redcliffe Elementary and East Aiken School of the Arts, earned “Good” ratings, which had not happened at the schools during the 15 years of the S.C. Report Card ratings, Laurence said in the release.

“Wagener-Salley High School received its first ‘Good’ rating in 13 years,” Laurence said.

Among Aiken County Public Schools, 97.6% of schools – the best of the top 10 state districts – received ratings of “Excellent,” “Good” and “Average,” followed by Dorchester Two at 95.8%, Richland Two at 94.4% and Greenville County at 94.2%.

According to the report cards, the district also has the lowest cost per pupil expenditure of the 10 largest school districts in the state. The district's cost per student is $8,988, followed by Dorchester School District Two at $9,027 and Greenville County School District at $9,239.

Middle schools improve

The school district's goal of increasing the academic performance of all middle schools also is “paying dividends,” according to the release.

Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle received its first rating of “Good” in more than 15 years, and the former Aiken Middle School – which had been rated at “Below Average” or “Unsatisfactory” every year for a decade – advanced two full performance categories to “Average.” Schofield Middle school also improved two levels as from “Below Average” to “Good.”

"One of our strategic priorities has been increasing student achievement at the middle school and ensuring equity in the many programs and offerings available to our middle school students and families,” said Jeanie Glover, the district's chief officer of instruction. “The hard work of our students, teaching staff, building administrators and curriculum specialists has really paid off with these outstanding results in our middle schools.”

North Augusta Middle and Ridge Spring-Monetta Middle also moved up an entire proficiency category from “Below Average” to “Average.”

Students college, career ready

The report cards also show the percentage of Aiken County Public Schools' graduating students who demonstrated they were either college or career ready exceeded the state average: 81% for the county compared to 75.2% for the state.

“Our graduation rate continues to exceed the state average, but we’re even more proud that Aiken County is exceeding the state average in the percent of students graduating either college or career ready,” Laurence said.

Increased performance

Across the district, the 2019 report card results for Aiken County Public Schools show 14 of 38 schools, or nearly 37%, increased a performance level, with 35% of elementary schools, 45% of middle schools and 28.6% of high schools moving up an entire performance category.

Clearwater Elementary advanced two criteria levels from “Unsatisfactory” to “Average.” Aiken, Greendale, J.D. Lever, Redcliffe and Oakwood-Windsor elementary schools also increased a performance level.

Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary is the only school in the district to receive a “Below Average” rating for 2019, according to its report card. The school's rating in 2018 was “Good.”

Millbrook Elementary moved from “Average” to “Excellent,” joining North Augusta Elementary with the high honor, according to the release. New Ellenton Middle School rated “Excellent” for the second consecutive year.

South Aiken 'Excellent'

South Aiken High School received an “Excellent” rating this year along with North Augusta High School.

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South Aiken High students in Rachelle Mason's AP Statistics class work on a linear regression model Tuesday to predict how many rubber bands would be needed to have a Barbie doll bungee off the bleachers without hitting the ground.

South Aiken Principal Samuel A. Fuller said the rating “means the South Aiken family has a school they can be proud of and not just based on our beliefs but based on hard data.

“We state in every announcement and every school and home communication: 'Every Thoroughbred, Every Day, All Means ALL,'" he said. “The 'Excellent' rating demonstrates how we, the students, teachers, staff and administration are working continuously to deliver on that promise to every member of the South Aiken family. The rating is also a testament to how much work we have all put in thus far. We are mindful that the work is not done and this is just one of the steps in the right direction for us.”

The report card also showed 54.3% of English language learners in Aiken County are meeting English language proficiency goals, exceeding the state performance average of 49.8%.

'Staggering' results

The district also made “staggering” results in mathematics and English language arts at the elementary and middle school levels, according to the release.

“Fourteen of our schools increasing an entire proficiency category is certainly cause for celebration,” said Kate Olin, the district's director of Accountability and Assessment, in the release. “Even more indicative of the hard work of our students, teachers and school leaders is that 68% of our schools made overall gains over last year. These types of incremental increases are the hallmark of true continuous improvement – slow and steady really does win the race.”

According to the release, 81.6% of the district's schools made gains in student achievement in English language arts and mathematics within the academic achievement performance measurement alone. That percentage increases to 90% for elementary schools, and all 11 of the district's middle schools made incremental gains in the academic achievement category.

“We have some truly remarkable students and teachers in Aiken County, and they are making us proud each and every day,” Olin said. “Especially within the academic achievement category, the gains by our schools, particularly at the elementary and middle levels, are staggering.”

The district's gains and improvements in student achievement occurred under the leadership of former district superintendent Dr. Sean Alford, whom the Aiken County School Board hired before the start of the 2015-16 school year. Alford, who was starting his fifth year as superintendent at the beginning of this school year, resigned Sept. 13.

“Only one word to describe Aiken students, teachers, leaders and community – PREMIER!” Alford wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

One of Alford's goals was to make Aiken County Public Schools the “emerging premier school district” in South Carolina.

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.