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HILTON HEAD MIDDLE SCHOOL PRINCIPAL ROLLS UP HER SLEEVES

Tough situations call for strong leaders. And after Hilton Head Island Middle School received a rating of “unsatisfactory” on the latest state schools report card, new principal Pat Freda is working hard to help turn it around.

District officials knew the school wasn’t thriving and at the end of last year and tapped Freda, who was then principal at Bluffton Middle School, to lead its recovery.

“I was asked to come here by our previous superintendent, and I agreed,” she said. “A piece of my heart is here. I felt that I could help.”

Coming back to Hilton Head Middle is like returning home for her. Freda lives on Hilton Head Island and her own children, now adults, moved through the Hilton Head schools cluster. Before taking the helm at Bluffton Middle, she spent 17 years at Hilton Head Middle as math teacher, curriculum coordinator and assistant principal.

“I knew there would be huge parent and community support waiting for me and they haven’t failed me,” she said.

The state report cards grade schools based on several criteria, including test scores, student and parent engagement — measured by response rates to surveys — and how well schools are closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities. It was this last area that contributed most to Hilton Head Middle’s poor showing: sub groups of students — especially student for whom English wasn’t a first language—weren’t improving fast enough in reading and math.

Pat FredaHilton Head Middle is 44 percent Hispanic, with the majority of these students considered English language learners. Two percent are Asian or Pacific islanders, 40 percent are white and 14 percent are black. In addition, about 48 percent of students are below the federal poverty line. Disparities in standardized test scores among students of different races, ethnicities and family incomes is another focus of the state school report cards.

Although she acknowledges the school has had problems with discipline, support for English language learners and teacher retention, Freda said Hilton Head Middle has many strengths and “didn’t deserve that rating.”

She moved quickly to put in place many programs that had worked at Bluffton Middle School, including doubling the time spent in language arts classes — from one hour to two each day — for students for who are still learning English and those struggling in reading and writing.

“They are losing an elective, but if you’re not meeting the standards in the middle grades, you can’t catch up in high school,” she said.

Newcomers who know no English are placed in a new program that emphasizes basic survival skills.

In math, as part of a district-wide initiative, students work in pairs to discover answers to problems and explain their methods and findings to each other. To improve discipline, Freda is using both carrots and sticks — so to speak. Students earn stamps towards a quarterly incentive party when adults “catch them doing the right thing, like being helpful, compassionate and responsible.” Those who misbehave get after school detention or eat lunch in the main office under Freda’s watchful eye.

“They really hate this,” she said, a bit gleefully.

Behind every good principal stands a great team, and Freda is quick to praise hers, including reading coach Angela Bellatone, assistant principal Beth Bournias and her assistant Cathy Woloszyk— who all followed her from Bluffton Middle. Three community groups, including Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, mentor students at Hilton Head Middle, the parent teacher organization is huge, and the school improvement council recently won a state award for its Stingray Support Circle — named after the school’s mascot and providing uniforms, school supplies, and healthy food to students in need and helping teachers fulfill classroom wish lists. The purpose of the Stingray Support Circle, said chairwoman Shannon Bedenbaugh, is “to make sure people are taken care of in this building and have the tools they need to be successful.”

Morale among teachers is up.

“Pat treats us with respect,” said Spanish teacher Irma Rameizl, who has been at the school for 18 years. “She’s a good leader.”

Parents, meanwhile, praise new dismissal procedures that provide more supervision and a better traffic flow at the end of the school day, and students say new after-school clubs and more resources for the band and strings programs have made coming to school more fun. Hilton Head Middle School has a student council for the first time and held its first-ever talent show recently.

Even as her voice fills with optimism about the school’s future, Freda cautions that it will take time to see the fruits of today’s efforts.

“This is not a one-year fix. It’s two to three years,” she said. “Each year, we will see movement a positive direction.”