Horry County’s state Teacher of the Year finalist vies for award Wednesday, but focus remains on special needs students, families

Jennifer Ainsworth

Jennifer Ainsworth was headed home from the water park, her two boys in tow, when she decided to take her resume to Socastee High School.

Ainsworth, clad in flip-flops and a cover-up, was looking for a teaching position and intended to quickly drop off her information, but she was greeted by a man at the front desk who wanted to talk with her on the spot.

“He said, ‘Let’s go on back for an interview,’ ” Ainsworth said of Paul Browning. “I had no idea he was the principal, but we talked, and he said, ‘I think you’d be a good fit.’ ”

That auspicious meeting in 2006 launched Ainsworth’s career as a special education teacher, a calling she felt early on but didn’t pursue until later in life. She is known for her passion and dedication to her students, which won her the Horry County Schools Teacher of the Year award last May. In March, she was named one of five finalists for S.C. Teacher of the Year – which has never been won by an Horry County educator – and she will be at the annual awards gala Wednesday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center when the winner will be announced.

“Jen’s classroom is a classroom that any parent would want their child in because she’s going to bring any student the furthest she can bring them,” said Traci Hogan, HCS executive director of federal programs who oversees the district’s special education programs. “She doesn’t just help the kids, she helps the families, and they are a family in that classroom. Whatever happens outside the classroom affects every one of them.”

A rookie at 34

Ainsworth, 42, seemed destined to be a teacher and earned a degree in special education from Presbyterian College, but after graduation, the McColl native couldn’t find a teaching job in her immediate area. Instead, she went into business with a friend, opening The Greek Shop to sell fraternity and sorority items.

“My late mother was a teacher, and she told me from day one I was going to teach – it was my calling,” Ainsworth said. “This was God’s path for me, but I had to take a different route.”

Ainsworth married her high school sweetheart and had two sons, now 12 and 14, before eventually moving to Myrtle Beach. She decided it was time to turn to teaching, she said, and hoped to find a position close to home in the Socastee attendance area.

“I was a 34-year-old rookie,” Ainsworth said, “but I was ready to get in the classroom.”

She definitely made an impression in her first meeting with Browning, who said her unconventional attire didn’t matter because it wasn’t a formal interview. He said he was looking for the right type of teacher who had flexibility, empathy and would try to get the best out of each student’s capabilities.

“I really don’t judge a book by its cover,” Browning said. “She was obviously a people person who really likes kids. It shone right through what a quality person she was – she’s one of my best ever.”

Ainsworth said once she was hired, she never looked back, spending her first year working with severe/profound special needs students before taking over the mild to moderate special needs class. She has 13 students from ages 14 to 21 who are learning work skills, life skills and academics in order to be productive citizens, and Ainsworth goes above and beyond to provide instruction and participation in the community, as well as recreational opportunities.

“Our students are focusing on life after high school, and for every student, that goal looks different,” said Kristin Wilson, HCS coordinator of special education. “Jen’s focus is to maximize their independence and prepare them for when they leave at 21, aside from what she does in the classroom.

“It’s a beautiful dance – she has a team of paraprofessionals she uses appropriately and efficiently, and it looks almost effortless when you go in her room, but I can assure you it takes a lot of effort.”

Being their best

Ainsworth’s class motto is “We see the ability, not the disability,” and her first step in working with a student is to develop a relationship with the parents, who are taking a big step by sending their children to her, she said. The class really is a family where each student can feel safe, loved and protected, she said, but they are urged to stretch themselves and sometimes even compete, learning it’s OK to have winners and most important to participate.

“We have high expectations – challenge them, and you’re going to see amazing strides,” Ainsworth said. “It’s great when parents can see that self-esteem, and we like that wow factor.”

Savannah Thompson, 18, is one of Ainsworth’s students who has blossomed in the class, and she will declare upfront, “I’m a go-getter.” She led a recent leadership class – which included student leaders from the school who regularly visit to share, laugh and learn from each other – in singing and clapping to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and she has sung at a number of community events, including Pelicans games.

“Savannah surprises me every day,” Ainsworth said. “She has that never-give-up attitude.”

Marjorie Thompson, Savannah’s mother, said Ainsworth has had an amazing effect on her daughter. She said the teacher has been a great influence not only on Savannah, but on their whole family.

“She’s teaching us all independence in that we’ve developed the trust in her to take responsibility for Savannah during the day,” Thompson said. “She takes each child as an individual, looks at their strengths and motivates them 100, 110 percent. She’s an amazing lady all around, and I couldn’t have handpicked a better teacher.”

Ainsworth always is working to find outside opportunities for her students, who have been supported by a number of nonprofit organizations such as Maria’s Kids, a foundation for special needs students. The group sponsors a number of activities for the students, including a putting contest last month at Island Green Country Club.

“You’ll never see a more dedicated woman,” said Gary Young, Maria’s Kids founder. “She makes them believe in themselves.”

Ainsworth’s drive to help kids and families extends beyond the activities with her class. She coordinates more than 1,400 athletes, volunteers and teachers each year for Horry County’s Special Olympic Spring Games, and her other activities include hosting Friday night events and a soup kitchen in her hometown at the Geddie-Cole Center, her grandfather’s 1930s movie theater that was renovated by her parents.

“I inherited that passion from my late mother,” said Ainsworth, who additionally cites her 96-year-old grandmother and Peggy Blaine, her class assistant who died the night before Ainsworth’s HCS Teacher of the Year win, as her inspirations. “Those three are with me every step of the way.”

Making history with a win

Ainsworth is only the fifth state “Honor Roll” finalist to be named from the district – following Julie Lovell, Janet Calder, Jackie Stanley and Bobby Chandler – and could be the first to bring the state Teacher of the Year award to Horry County, but she said the nomination is a win because of the spotlight it shines on special needs students.

“It’s a testament to my students and my staff, who are the backbone of what we do,” Ainsworth said. “Our kids give us unconditional love, and it’s great when people see that and how genuine they are. Having special needs doesn’t mean needing pity or to be felt sorry for – we shine. We need to respect them and be aware of them – they have so much potential to do more.”

Wilson said two of Ainsworth’s students were recognized as superheroes at a recent Children’s Museum event, and the term is an apt descriptor for Ainsworth as well.

“Jen is a superhero – she has to have phenomenal talents and abilities that are beyond what we find in the average teacher,” Wilson said. “I can’t think of a better term to sum up that classroom. They really are superheroes.”