In a room packed with students, teachers and Forsyth County government and school officials on Tuesday, South Forsyth Middle School was bestowed the Lighthouse Schools to Watch award, one of the highest honors that a middle school can achieve.
Only given to about 400 schools in the nation, group officials say the Lighthouse Schools to Watch award recognizes exceptional middle schools that embody the symbolism of a lighthouse and lead the way in the world of education.
According to Lighthouse Schools to Watch state co-director Linda Hopping, only 17 schools in Georgia were recognized with the award for 2019. By receiving this award, she said that the school is now responsible for mentoring other local middle schools and helping them to grow and improve.
“They are joining a very prestigious group," she said. "No school is perfect. What we are looking for is improvement, continuous improvement and a continuous upward trajectory."
At the ceremony on Tuesday, South Forsyth Middle Principal Sandy Tinsley was presented a plaque and an award shaped like a model lighthouse, while each staff member at the school was presented a lighthouse shaped pen.
During the ceremony, Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Jeff Bearden spoke to the crowd, thanking the school for its hard work and saying how proud he was of what they had accomplished.
"South Forsyth Middle School has been a consistent high-achieving school for many, many years. I'm proud of that fact, and you should be proud as well,” Bearden said. "But I'm even more proud of the fact that this school is incredibly focused on the social and emotional wellbeing of its students ... the research is clear that when home, school and community work together as partners, our students benefit and that happens here at South Forsyth, perhaps better than anywhere else in the state of Georgia."
To become a Lighthouse School to Watch, Hopping said that a school must excel in four major areas: academic excellence, or how well students achieve; developmental responsiveness, or how the school handles educating its students; social equity, whether opportunities are equal within the school; and organizational structures and projects, how well the school is set up to facilitate the other domains.
Camille McElroy, the second state co-director of Lighthouse Schools to Watch, said that to ensure the continuous improvement, this award even has an expiration date of sorts. Schools must reapply every three years, go through testing, and face the same scrutiny they did when they first applied.
“It is of course a distinction to get it,” McElroy said. “But it is also a school improvement program, because unlike a lot of other awards that schools might get, schools that are Lighthouse Schools to Watch have to re-apply every three years ... so it's a continuous growth."
She said that often schools are not re-designated because they can’t pass the award’s criteria rubric; that’s how they went from designating 24 schools in 2018 to 17 schools in 2019.
But among those 17, she said that South Forsyth Middle wasn’t alone in the county, as Liberty Middle School in north Forsyth was re-designated as a Lighthouse Schools to Watch.
Both schools will be recognized at a national event in Washington, D.C., in June.