Eighth-grader Glenn Graves came before the school board tonight to plead with them not to take the Academy of Arts, Science and Technology opportunity away from incoming freshman, as he had worked hard for years for the chance to apply for entry.
Graves did not get his wish.
“I learned about it in the third grade, and I worked my tail off to [try] and get into it,” Graves said to the board. “The year I’m going in, it’s going to be taken away from me.”
The school board voted tonight to make AAST only available to juniors and seniors, and this year’s freshman class will be the last freshman class from now on – but they will be allowed to continue on their current path and graduate from the program.
The motion approved said that STEM programs in base high schools across the district will continue to be expanded, and with the elimination of freshmen and sophomores, there will be more room for juniors and seniors who want to specialize in a specific major at that point.
The vote was met with dejected sighs and some tears from attendees.
“It’s a top ten performing school and you want to change it,” said AAST parent Susan McDonald.
HCS Superintendent Rick Maxey said that when this year’s freshman class applied, there were 570 applicants and only 134 invited, with a final 108 who committed. That left 436 who were denied entry.
Their current enrollment is 626, and proponents of the change said that freshman entry was no longer necessary given the increased STEM opportunities at base high schools.
Vice Chair John Poston said that he is a big supporter of STEM, but he was not convinced that “taking away one of the more successful programs we have in Horry County” was the answer. He felt it was going to be harder to get sophomores to leave their established schools to attend AAST as juniors, versus having students begin as freshman.
“The ninth and tenth grade students are some of our best recruiters,” said District 3 member Ray Winters. “We don’t need to fix what doesn’t really seem to be broken right now.”
Winters argued that the newly-established K-8 STEM programs needed to be given time to take hold before making changes.
District 7 representative Janet Graham thought nothing was wrong with the timing.
“My question is if not now, when?” Graham said. “It’s time to do something different … for the sake of those students who aren’t being represented.”
The vote to move the school to eleventh and twelfth grades passed 7-3, with three "no" votes coming from John Poston, Ray Winters, and Chris Hardwick.
Scholars Academy to be a standalone school
The board voted 8-2 to make Scholars Academy (SA) a standalone school, with the amendments that all current students be grandfathered in to continue in the program until graduation, and that the students would not be ranked against one another.
Poston and Winters voted against the change.
SA students will still be allowed to participate in extracurriculars and athletics at their base schools, but they will no longer be ranked along with their base school students, and they will have their own graduation.
They also would not be eligible to compete for valedictorian and salutatorian at their base schools.
Tensions were high as more than 30 people had signed up for public comment on the matter, and lengthy data was presented by the board.
Proponents of the change say that SA “displaces” base high school students and the playing field for scholarships is not level.
Data presented by Superintendent Maxey claims that with SA staying as it is, there was $16,251,600 in scholarship money awarded last year. With SA as a standalone school, their data said, $16,788,400 would have been awarded.
“A $536,800 difference. There’s more scholarship money for Horry County School students as a standalone school,” Maxey said.
Data presented also showed that if SA had been a standalone school last year, five SA students would not have been eligible for the Palmetto Fellows scholarship, but they would have received the LIFE scholarship.
Maxey’s data also showed that the SA Class of 2019 benefitted from a total of 1,440 credit hours, to the tune of $703,228 in tuition savings, by being able to take college credit courses as high schoolers at SA.
Scholars parents have voiced their opinions for weeks since the news broke that the board was considering making SA its own school. They said the move would take away the collaborative environment their students currently enjoy.
“My daughter … she wants to learn in a collaborative environment. She’s worked so hard, you’re going to take it away from her and snatch it out from under her. That’s not how elected officials treat their electors,” said SA parent Rob Shelton, to thunderous applause.
Many parents urged the board to slow down and not make a “huge mistake”, and were upset that the data presented was not shared with parents.
“We’re very concerned this is being rushed through, we have no data provided,” said parent Lorraine Mallon.
“Slow the change train,” said parent Jason Mahood.
Those in favor of the change to Scholars were in the minority during public comment, but were just as passionate as those on the other side.
“Students at SA take more high-ranking classes, and have higher GPAs that beat out our high schoolsers that have worked just as hard. It’s frustrating as a teacher and a mother, [that at graduation] we listen to speeches from students that we as teachers and student body do not know,” said parent and teacher Ann Twigg.
Curriculum committee member Sherrie Todd said she could not support the amendment to grandfather in current SA students.
“[It’s] three years of taking away a million and a half dollars of scholarship money from Horry County families,” Todd said.
Poston, who proposed the amendment for grandfathering, saying the school has been historically successful.
“We make so many decisions up here based on a doggone dollar. This is not about scholarship dollars, or dollars in general … keep the program with a unique learning environment available to kids,” Poston said, to a standing ovation from part of the crowd.
District 7 member Janet Graham said she felt strongly about losing the scholarship dollars if SA stayed as it was.
“That is the world we live in,” Graham said. “In my district, we have parents who … this scholarship money would mean the world to them. It could make a real difference in students’ lives in my area.”
Changes to both schools will begin with the 2020-2021 school year.