SC’s best principals for 2016-17 all come from Midlands schools

(Left to right) Denise Barth, Akil Ross, Gerald Gary
(Left to right) Denise Barth, Akil Ross, Gerald Gary

The three best principals in South Carolina all hail from Midlands schools this year.

Denise Barth, of Catawba Trail Elementary in Elgin, is the S.C. Elementary Principal of the Year, an honor given annually by the S.C. Association of School Administrators. She learned of her award at a surprise ceremony at the school Wednesday.

“Everything I do begins with my vision, and one of the greatest challenges is to make my vision tangible to every stakeholder,” Barth said. “I believe every child must come to school every day. ... Achievement will follow.”

Gerald Gary, of Dutch Fork Middle School in Irmo, is the S.C. Middle Level Principal of the Year. And Akil Ross, of Chapin High School, is the state’s Secondary Principal of the Year.

This is the second year in a row Midlands principals have dominated the statewide honors. Last year, two of the top three principals in the state came from Lexington 1 schools: Sherry Cariens of Oak Grove Elementary and Bill Coon of Meadow Glen Middle.

Collectively, Barth, Gary and Ross have more than 30 years of experience leading Midlands schools and more than six decades of experience working in education.

Barth’s 33-year career in Richland 2 began as a sixth-grade English and language arts teacher at E.L. Wright Middle School in 1983.

She has been a teacher, administrator, assistant principal and principal. She took the helm as Catawba Trail’s first principal in 2011. The school has nearly 600 students in its fifth year of operation.

Gary, in his fourth year as principal at Dutch Fork Middle, has been an educator since 1999, working at schools in Richland 2, Kershaw County and Lexington-Richland 5.

Leading the 1,100-student Dutch Fork Middle is Gary’s “dream job,” he said.

The school focuses on project-based learning, Gary said. “We do the same thing as other folks,” he said. But, “we do it better.”

He’s hoping for the school to win a Palmetto’s Finest Schools award.

Ross is in his sixth year as principal at Chapin High, which has about 1,300 students. He stresses a motto of “six R’s” at the school: “Ready to learn, Respectful to others, Responsible to ourselves, Rigor in teaching, Relevance in learning and meaningful Relationships among students, faculty and staff,” he has said.

“The award may have my name on it, but it is really the work of the students, the amazing faculty and staff I have here and just a tribute to the awesome community of Chapin,” Ross said. “I’ll be honest, this was a huge surprise.”

Barth, Gary and Ross will all go on to compete for national honors and represent South Carolina in the National Distinguished Principals program.

Staff writer Tim Flach contributed.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.