While Clemson finished second athletically for college football's top prize the previous year, Seneca High finished second in the state's top academic award. Roberts said the school was inspired by the manner in which the Tigers were able to overcome the disappointment of the previous year to win it all in January.
“It's easy to take a step back but they went back to the drawing board and did what it took,” Roberts said. “With our student body being 90 percent Clemson fans, we were able to draw that same parallel.
“Success breeds success and if you can become an organization that is that successful, you want to duplicate it.”
That inspiration and determination to further improve paid off handsomely Tuesday as Seneca High received the Palmetto's Finest award, winning over Dutch Fork High School. The award is given to the top two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school and was announced on a webcast from SCETV.
“This is something that's been 10 years in the making,” Roberts said afterward. “Ten years ago, we weren't a Palmetto's Finest school. There's been a lot of sweat equity and hard work from the entire community.”
When Cliff Roberts was named principal of Seneca High in the spring of 2008, he inherited, in his words “a unique situation.”
“There had been four principals in four years and my first graduating class had four principals,” Roberts said. “But we were able to find a core and get to where we were able to achieve this and for where our students deserved to be and our community deserved to be. This isn't just a Seneca High School award, it's a One Seneca award.”
Roberts said the first thing that enabled the school to achieve the award is the students, followed closely by the support given by parents and the community as a whole.
“Our diversity is our strength and we want to be that outlier,” Roberts said. “We've come real close in a lot of things but, today, these kids don't have to be second to anybody. They are the top high school in the state and I'm really happy for them. That's why you do this work and I couldn't be more proud of them.”
The Seneca High principal also credited the school district for supporting his efforts to bring in quality administrative staff – including assistant principal Felicia LeRoy – and teachers. LeRoy's father, Harry Hamilton, served as principal of the school for nearly three decades.
Roberts also said the One Seneca effort with Seneca High, Seneca Middle and the Seneca area elementary schools of Northside, Blue Ridge and Ravenel has also been a key contributor.
“We couldn't do what we do without support from our other Seneca principals,” Roberts said. “The fact we have everybody on the same page in doing what is best for kids is a great thing to be proud of.”
Oconee County District Superintendent Michael Thorsland said he is very excited for Seneca High.
“It's well deserved,” Thorsland said. “I am really proud of them and excited for the entire county. It brings a lot of recognition to our county.”
Seneca High is the first Oconee County school to win top honors in 16 years. Ravenel Elementary won Palmetto's Finest for the 1996-97 school year while James M. Brown won for 2000-01 and Walhalla Middle in 1986-87.
In Pickens County, Pickens Middle School is the last School District of Pickens County school to win (2001-02) while Morrison Elementary (now Clemson Elementary) also won in 1979-80.
“Hopefully, it won't be as long a wait for the next one,” Thorsland said. “We're glad Seneca High School forged their way here in recent history and we're just really excited about it.”
Thorsland said while the process for any school to achieve the prestigious award is difficult, it is one he feels is beneficial in the long run.
“It forces a school to look at what is going on and what they need to improve,” Thorsland said. “Whether a school receives a visit or wins or doesn't win, it's a good process to go through. It's made Seneca High School a good school and recognized for it in 2017.”
The South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA) presents the awards each year to schools that offer the best in innovative, effective educational programs. The Palmetto's Finest Award is celebrating its 39th year and is one of the most coveted and respected awards among educators.
Last fall, 21 South Carolina schools submitted a 20-page application and received an on-site examination visit by a review committee. The finalists underwent a second on-site evaluation.
“Mrs. LeRoy headed this thing up for three years and the resolve and commitment she's made to this award has made all the difference in the world,” Roberts said.
Seneca High, with an enrollment of 970 students, was recognized for programs they offer that include Graduation Transition Services and for offering 21 Advanced Placement courses. The school was also recognized for winning Palmetto Gold the last two years and for being named among the Best Public High Schools in the nation in 2016 by U.S. News and World Report.
Oconee County School Board Chairman Andy Inabinet began his education career as a teacher at Seneca High School in 1969 under Harry Hamilton and stayed until 1974. Inabinet said he is proud of how the school went through the process the last two years and finally received recognition from the state for their achievements.
“We appreciate their hard work,” Inabinet said. “They have a good strong staff here with teachers and students and community spirit. It's long overdue and I could not be prouder of them. To get Cliff and Felicia has been an asset. He's really pulled it together, not just in this school but in the Seneca area with all Seneca principals working together and serving each other.”
Inabinet said his children attended Seneca schools from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.
“They'll be excited that their school won,” he said.
Roberts said the honor will forever be felt by the school.
“It's great for these kids to wear their pride – that we're the best school district in the state is something to be very proud of,” Roberts said.
submitted by Greg Oliver, The Journal