Return to Headlines

SC Council for Exceptional Children Honors Three HCS Employees

The South Carolina Council for Exceptional Children (SCCEC) has named South Conway Elementary principal Leon Hayes their Principal of the Year, Myrtle Beach Middle teacher Jessica Miller their Exceptional Educator of the Year, and St. James High teacher Emily Scheffler their Rookie Teacher of the Year. You can read profiles of each of these winners at the bottom of the page.

The SCCEC, as a branch of the national CEC, is a professional organization dedicated to improving the education and quality of life of students with disabilities, gifts, and/or talents. One way they do this is by providing professional development opportunities to help special educators learn the most current best practices for teaching. The SCCEC honored these three HCS employees at their annual conference, held Feb. 15-19 in Charleston. 

Natasha McDonald, director of HCS special education, said that the SCCEC only gives three awards for which school districts can nominate their employees, adding, “it is uncommon for the three district awards to be given to staff members in the same district, but it was an HCS sweep!”

Congratulations, Mr. Hayes, Ms. Miller, and Ms. Scheffler! HCS appreciates all you do for our exceptional children. 

Leon Hayes GraphicLeon Hayes, who was named Principal of the Year, is in his 51st year in education. Forty-three of those years have been as an administrator, including seven years as HCS’s executive director for special education, where he helped develop the district’s plans for supporting students with disabilities. In addition, he has served as the principal at South Conway Elementary for the last 13 years. 

Not long after Mr. Hayes became principal at South Conway Elementary, the school won the Palmetto Gold Award for Closing the Achievement Gap three times in a row. Years before, when he was the principal of Loris Elementary, that school won several awards for improving student literacy and writing. Outside of school, Mr. Hayes volunteers with the South Carolina Literacy/Reading Recovery Advisory Council.

Mr. Hayes is proud that South Conway Elementary was the only elementary school in the Conway attendance area that the 2022 state report cards did not identify as having a low-performing cluster of disabled students, despite these students representing over 21% of the school’s population. He attributes his students’ success to the school’s co-teaching strategies that give special education students standards-based instruction in a way that will help the students learn.

He also believes in the value of allowing disabled students to spend time with non-disabled peers both in and out of the classroom. As a result, he provides numerous opportunities for them to do just that, including service learning projects, safety patrol, art club, archery, garden club, technology club, and chorus.

Mr. Hayes doesn’t just implement strategies, though. He also teaches others. He has provided numerous trainings to teachers about the co-teaching model, student study teams, and how to write and implement Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Mr. Hayes was the subject of one of our Person Behind the Title videos last year. If you want to know more about him, check out his video here!

Jessica Miller GraphicJessica Miller, who was named Exceptional Educator of the Year, is in her ninth year teaching at Myrtle Beach Middle as a special education teacher. She was also one of the top five semifinalists for last year’s HCS Teacher of the Year competition. Ms. Miller is no stranger to the CEC. She joined the national CEC while pursuing her undergraduate degree in special education at Coastal Carolina University. She also joined the student chapter of the CEC at CCU, later serving as its secretary and then as its president.

Ms. Miller was an active volunteer during her time with the CEC at CCU, serving at numerous organizations. She continues to volunteer at many of these organizations despite graduating and leaving the student CEC chapter. In fact, her pathway to being a special education teacher is related to her volunteerism. 

While she said she’s wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember, Ms. Miller said her decision to become a special education teacher wasn’t so immediate. At her high school, she initiated tutoring sessions for students with special needs and athletes. She also organized monthly events and hosted a “Buddy Prom” in 2010 for students with special needs. After the Buddy Prom, she received a letter from her principal that said her “work, thoughtfulness, and absolute love for children could never have been demonstrated any better.” Ms. Miller said this letter confirmed her desire to become a special education teacher.

This isn’t Ms. Miller’s first time receiving an award at the SCCEC conference. In 2019, she won the South Carolina Teacher Education Division Mentoring Award for Outstanding Service Mentoring Special Education Teacher Candidates. Since 2015, she has hosted many teacher candidates. She has also been a mentor for new teachers in her building. Ms. Miller explained why she enjoys mentoring teachers and teacher candidates: “I get to inspire professionals and future professionals, as well as model many important aspects of teaching such as organization, time management, dedication, resilience, positive relationships, my content knowledge, and my love for students.”

Of her work with her students, Ms. Miller said, “Everyone is deserving of a purposeful life, and I strive to help students build upon and acquire the necessary abilities to help them create the path for a meaningful life.” In addition, she said she focuses on building genuine relationships with her students because the relationships create a positive learning environment that makes her students feel supported and safe, allowing them to learn more effectively. Finally, Ms. Miller said, “I am passionate about advocating for my students and teaching them how to advocate for themselves.”

Emily Scheffler GraphicEmily Scheffler, who was named Rookie Teacher of the Year, is in her fifth year as a special education teacher at St. James High, but she has been involved with SCCEC since she was a student at Coastal Carolina University. Ms. Scheffler said she wasn’t expecting to win the award. In fact, she thought the original email she received about it was spam! However, once she realized it was genuine, she said she was thrilled and “honored to accept such an amazing award.” She said she couldn’t take all the credit, though: “I am so thankful to my amazing paraprofessionals; I would not be successful without them.”

This isn’t Ms. Scheffler’s first award for the 2022-23 school year. We announced in October that she won an award for excellence in career education. It’s also not her first time being named Rookie Teacher of the Year. She was given that designation by St. James High in 2019-20, her first year there. Despite being fairly new to the profession herself, Ms. Scheffler has led professional development for new teachers, building a model classroom to help them create a learning environment in their own classroom that’s accommodating for all students.

Ms. Scheffler said she has always wanted to be a teacher, but the decision specifically to become a special education teacher came from the “genuine relationships and friendships with the special education students” she developed while she was still a student. She said she’s “passionate about transitioning high school students into the community and ensuring their success in their postsecondary lives.” She helps them achieve that success by giving them opportunities to participate in “school-based and community-based instruction activities where they get to explore their likes and dislikes and begin to plan their futures.” 

She has worked to build relationships not only with her students but also with employers in the community who provide internships and employment opportunities to her students when they’re ready to transition into the workforce. Even before they leave the building, Ms. Scheffler gives them opportunities to run a business. For example, she created the "Java Jaws” program, where students practice their work skills by taking coffee orders from the staff, making the beverages, delivering them to the classrooms, and completing financial transactions.

Ms. Scheffler said she loves seeing her students overcome obstacles, and she loves celebrating their successes, no matter how big or small.