08 Apr Heritage Academy: New Owner, Same Commitment to Excellence
This Article Originally Appeared In Celebrate Hilton Head
Author: Tim Wood | Photographer: M.Kat Photography
Amanda Williams-O’Nan was grateful for the oppor-tunity to return to educating youngsters at Hilton Head Island private school Heritage Academy last summer. Just four months later, she got an oppor-tunity she never imagined possible. “I bought the school,” said Williams’-O’Nan, the school’s new owner and Head of School.
The celebrated educator and former principal of Hilton Head Island High School started a college counseling service after her HHIHS departure, and her work attracted the attention of IJGA and Heritage owner Andrew Summers. Williams-O’Nan initially helped with several school programs and functions alongside former headmaster Gloria Shoemaker. In addition, she started community programs using the Academy facilities.
“There are so many needs during COVID, so we used classrooms for public school kids that needed guidance and oversight to do their virtual learning supervised by proctors,” she said.
Now that the purchase is official, Williams-O’Nan plans to rapidly evolve Heritage Academy from an island-based alternative for high-achieving international student-athletes to an affordable option for island families that continues to serve a unique student demographic.
“I am so grateful to the staff and families that have led us to this next chapter,” Williams-O’Nan said. “We want to open the doors and let island families rediscover what we’re all about.”
Heritage Academy was founded in 1993 as a courtside school for the Van der Meer Tennis Academy. The idea was to provide a flexible education atmosphere to students in grades 6-12 who were striving for a career in professional tennis. The school evolved into a passions-focused haven for all student athletes and performers who needed individualized schooling that fit with their intense training schedules.
Summers took over and made it the academic base for his worldwide golf academy students. O’Nan plans to continue serving that niche community while hoping to fill the island void left as Hilton Head Christian Academy moved to a new Bluffton campus.
“There is this myth out there that tuition here was $60- to $70,000, so we have an incredible opportunity to build new relationships in this transition,” she said. “You don’t have to be a gold or tennis star to be here. Whatever drives a child, we want to work with.”
In fact, 2020 tuition was $14,950 for high schoolers. Williams-O’Nan has already cut that cost to $11,950 for high schoolers and $9,950 for middle schoolers—in comparison, almost half the cost of tuition at island neighbor Hilton Head Prep.
The school offers an 8:1 student/teacher ratio, over 50 AP courses and a schedule similar to college programs, with students taking three classes per semester, each class 90 minutes per day. Williams-O’Nan hopes to strike an agreement with a college institution to offer dual enrollment classes for college credit in the near future.
Just as she started during the summer, Williams-O’Nan looks forward to opening the campus to be a community learning center. In addition to recruiting island students, she plans to take advantage of the unique usage schedule of the school’s facilities.
“Our classes are over by just after lunch, so the lights are off for the rest of the day. We’re going to change that immediately,” she said. “I want to offer adult education classes, SAT prep, homework and tutoring assistance, just to name a few ideas. We want this to be a full-time educational center for the community.”
The Academy’s new sheriff and keyholder has a very personal goal driving her mission. “I’ve always been a public-school advocate, but I see the benefits that a school like Heritage offers students,” she said. “I want this to be a school where I’d send my kids. The affordability that goes with the flexibility we can provide and the diversity of classes we offer is a huge plus. We answer to our families and our board, not some arbitrary set of state mandates. We’re not teaching to the test here. We’re meeting students where they are to give them the best chance to succeed.”
The school currently houses 52 students but can currently hold over 100 students. Williams-O’Nan said she has already scouted additional commercial space on the island to be prepared for expansion as needed. She said that just in the first 24 hours after announcing the school purchase on Facebook, she got a steady flow of inquiries and eight new student sign-ups.
“We’re never going to be bursting at the seams,” she said. “I believe with the partnerships I have fostered in my time in the Lowcountry, combined with the outreach we plan to undertake, we’re going to grow. And we’ll always be ahead of that growth.”
Williams-O’Nan won accolades for her staff-building skills and for creating strong relationships with students, teachers and parents alike. “Anybody could run a school, but to really succeed, you have to love children and you must have an amazing foundation of teachers. That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “I love the challenge of building that environment, of making good educators better. I feel like I’ve won the lottery here. We have amazing financial backers who have believed in me to create this opportunity.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have had a reset, to have time to focus on my three kids who are my world. Educating, it’s what makes my heart go pitter patter in the morning. I found that thing that motivates me, drives me, and I love having each day to help kids find and achieve that same path.”
Williams-O’Nan said she’s not looking to reinvent the wheel at Heritage Academy, a school with an already sterling reputation. She’s just looking to create more connections with the local opportunity to fully utilize all the school has to offer.
“I encourage folks to give us a try. We always need volunteers,” she said. “It’s a great way to get involved. There’s nothing more exciting than to see young kids learning, to see the magic happen, the light bulbs lighting.”
Williams-O’Nan said that word of mouth and the family relationships have been and will always be the measure of success. “You do right by a parent and a student, you have friends for life. Seeing those successes and students and families coming back and sharing their victories, that’s the best feeling in the world,” she said.
The new Head of School knows she has a lot of work ahead to forge the next chapter for Heritage Academy and is ready to start pounding the pavement. “Talking to parents, local organizations, potential partners, it’s what I love. I think we have an exciting story to tell,” she said. “The more we show what we have to offer here, I think the sky’s the limit.”