Forest Acres Elementary School Named a Finalist in Prestigious NIET Founder’s Award

March 7, 2023

Forest Acres Elementary School Named a Finalist in Prestigious NIET Founder’s Award

School one of just five in nation in the running for $50,000 grand prize award

Pickens County, SC (March 7, 2023) - The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Forest Acres Elementary School in the School District of Pickens County (SDPC), South Carolina, won $10,000 for its selection as an NIET Founder’s Award finalist. The prestigious Founder’s Award was created by Lowell Milken in 2008 to honor one school in the United States each year for exceptional implementation of NIET’s principles to build educator excellence and advance student success. Forest Acres Elementary School is among five schools across the country under consideration for the $50,000 grand prize which will be announced at NIET’s national conference on March 23.

"Forest Acres' mission to build 'foundations for academic excellence' starts with high-quality instruction," said NIET Founder Lowell Milken. "We thank Dr. Ashley Anderson-Murray and her team for advancing teacher leadership and practices that deliver solid results for students. With Forest Acres as a model, it is no surprise that the School District of Pickens County – led by Superintendent Dr. Danny Merck – consistently ranks among the top in South Carolina for educational excellence."

Founder’s Award recipients like Forest Acres Elementary School are selected by NIET based on several factors, including their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement, plans for regular professional learning focused on real-time needs of teachers and students, creating a culture of collaboration and reflection, and leveraging teacher leaders and administrators to drive student growth.

NIET’s partner schools have shown success in improving educator, student, and school outcomes. Forest Acres Elementary School, among other schools, has continuously elevated its educators through the use of NIET’s tools and resources to support instructional excellence and create career pathways. 

"Forest Acres Elementary has demonstrated a strong commitment to educator excellence which resulted in sustained improvements in student academic success," said . "These improvements in student achievement are the result when a strong school leadership team collaborates and ensures strategies are transferred to every classroom."

What Makes Forest Acres Elementary School Unique? 

Forest Acres Elementary School, located just west of Greenville, South Carolina, is one of 23 schools in the School District of Pickens County. The school serves 710 students in grades PK through five, 54 percent of whom qualify as "pupils in poverty." The school has set a goal to fully prepare its students for the future, and Principal Ashley Anderson-Murray and her leadership team are taking intentional steps to achieve this goal, using NIET structures to revamp their school culture with a focus on excellence. This has created a positive learning environment for students and teachers. 

"When teachers and staff are excited to come to work each day and promote student learning, our students are more enthusiastic and ready to achieve," said Anderson-Murray. "The excitement for education is contagious!"

In the 2021-2022 school year, Forest Acres Elementary School earned the state rating of "Good," the 2nd highest rating a school can receive. From 2021 to 2022, Forest Acres Elementary students increased performance on state assessments from 54 percent to 60 percent in English Language Arts and 57 percent to 61 percent in math. With their increases in performance, Forest Acres Elementary students have consistently outperformed students statewide on state assessments in English Language Arts, math, and science since 2018. 

"When we started focusing on high-quality instruction, there was a paradigm shift in the mindset of our school leaders and that transferred to all of our instructional staff," said Anderson-Murray. "Ultimately, the changes in our school’s approach to education led to greater student achievements over time. We are so proud of our young learners and our entire staff!"

Another adjustment for the school came when they shifted focus and became more student-centered. Principal Anderson-Murray and her leadership team have encouraged this student-focus through the use of the "Three R's": Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. A focus on student-teacher relationships has increased the sense of shared responsibility for student success while the expectation of relevance has set new standards for how lessons and activities should align to state standards while also making real-world connections for students. 

Finally, the focus on rigor has allowed Forest Acres Elementary School to recommit to providing students with high-quality instruction and providing teachers with time to collaborate and strengthen their instructional skills. 

"From the top down, no matter our job description, our Forest Acres family understands it takes a village," said Anderson-Murray. "We truly care and respect each other as professionals, as well as each and every child that comes through our doors."

Forest Acres Elementary School joins fellow finalists Desert Thunder School (Avondale Elementary School District, Arizona); William Henry Burkhart Elementary (Perry Township Schools, Indiana); Slaughter Elementary School (East Feliciana Public Schools, Louisiana); and Dr. Lonnie Green Elementary (San Felipe Del Rio CISD, Texas) in contention for the $50,000 Founder’s Award grand prize.

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