There was a party on the patio at Socastee High School Monday morning, as students and staff celebrated one of their own.
Music, dancing and a whole lot of hugs greeted special education teacher Jennifer Ainsworth, who was named S.C. Teacher of the Year last week at a gala in Columbia. She is the first educator to bring the award home to Horry County, and the gathering was recognition by her Socastee family in the place where her journey started.
“She represents the excellence that’s across the board here,” said Principal Paul Browning, dressed in his “Socastee uniform” of black and gold. “It’s just an acknowledgement of her as a representative of one of the finest faculties anywhere – one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”
A crowd gathered under sunny skies as the song “Happy” played over the loudspeaker. Browning presented Ainsworth with a special “South Carolina Teacher of the Year” sash, along with the requisite tiara. Faculty members then took turns hanging personally designed badges around her neck, which included a doll, a poster and a BMW tag, representing Ainsworth’s new ride, which was parked right up front.
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“That was so much fun. It just shows what a family we are here – teachers uplifting teachers – they want the best for you,” said Ainsworth, who gave credit for her win to her team of classroom aides. “I don’t think words can describe how I felt when I walked out – it’s an awesome, wonderful experience.”
Ainsworth received balloons and flowers from Traci Hogan, HCS executive director of federal programs, who oversees special education in the district.
“This is a huge recognition for the work of our special education teachers,” Hogan said. “Fourteen percent of Horry County Schools’ population is students with disabilities, and they’re a very important part of society. Jen makes [her students] independent community members.”
Ainsworth teaches the mild to moderate special needs class, with students ages 14 to 21. In addition to academics, students learn work and life skills, and Ainsworth is known for going above and beyond to have them participate in the community and become productive citizens.
“I don’t know her that well, but a lot of students know her, and I’ve heard she’s absolutely amazing,” said freshman Lexy Cody at the celebration. “This is just an awesome thing to get.”
The statewide winner received a $25,000 prize, as well as the use of the BMW X5, which will be swapped for a different BMW every 10,000 miles, as she travels the state as an education ambassador. She also will participate in a residency program at the state’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, and will be a member of next year’s class of Leadership South Carolina.
Ainsworth’s new responsibilities will take her out of the classroom next year. Browning said for the interim, he will hire a dually certified teacher, who will be able to move into other positions in the district. Special education is a critical needs area, and Browning said the district has a lot of turnover, about 100 vacancies each year.
For now, though, Ainsworth is back with her students, who were getting ready Monday afternoon for a trip to learn disc golf.
“This is special with it being from Socastee High School staff, but now I’ll go back to my regular day,” Ainsworth said. “I’ll be an ambassador next year, but I will still be part of my classroom. This is my family.”