The crowd at the Horry County School Board meeting tonight was passionate about the recent curriculum committee proposal that would make Scholars Academy a standalone school, and would move the Academy of Art, Science and Technology (AAST) option away from freshman and sophomore students and offer it only to juniors and seniors.
There was no vote taken on the matter tonight.
Last month, the newly-formed curriculum committee talked about the state of the two program schools, in addition to the other HCS offerings: the Academy of Technology and Academics (ATA), the Academy of Arts, Science and Technology (AAST), Early College High School, Scholars Academy, the HCS Virtual School, the STEM program at Conway High School, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs at Aynor High School and Socastee High.
Currently the district has at least one STEM class in every high school, and Chief Officer of Academics Boone Myrick said their goal in the next three years is to have all STEM options represented in all the high schools.
"The large number of applicants for the AAST STEM program each year (approximately 600) highlights the need to provide more options for numerous students to pursue their interest in STEM," said curriculum committee chair and District 2 representative Sherrie Todd in the committee's proposal.
At AAST, there are nearly 600 applicants each year but only 100 students chosen from a “very specific rubric”, according to executive director of middle schools April Scott.
“I have people not happy with that rubric,” said District 7 representative Janet Graham in last month's meeting.
School board chairman Ken Richardson said for many of the students who do not get that acceptance letter to AAST, it is their “first real jolt.”
“The more we add at the high school [base school] level, the more pressure it takes off the children and us. Nearly 500 kids that don’t get in … that’s reality,” he said during the curriculum committee’s first meeting.
Todd said in the committee's proposal that the current freshman 2019 class at AAST would be the last class to complete the four-year program.
District 3 board member Ray Winters said he thinks that since the district is in the process of rolling out STEM education throughout the district, the district should wait to make a decision.
"I would personally like to see [STEM] programming across the district better established before making any programming changes," Winter said, to raucous applause from the standing room only audience.
Myrick gave a few pros and cons to taking AAST to only eleventh and twelfth grades, including the fact that students will still have the options to participate in sports, honor societies, etc.
Myrick said, to the chagrin of the crowd, that there was no disadvantage list to share regarding changing the program at this time.
Parent and former Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Cooperation Josh Kay said that AAST made a huge impression on his oldest child's life, and the program should stay as it is.
"I would be finding ways to replicate AAST rather than eliminating it," Kay said.
Michael Brown, managing partner of Carolina Radiology Associates said that the breadth and variety of program schools offered in Horry County is important to recruiting new physicians and professionals in the area.
"We need to get people into this growing community," Brown said.
Some community members were concerned that having Scholars Academy be a standalone school would mean its students could no longer participate in extracurricular activities they can currently enjoy at their base schools.
Being its own entity would also still allow Scholars students to participate in extra-curriculars such as sports and band at their base schools, according to Lisa Bourcier, HCS spokesperson.
Todd said that Scholars students who wish to remain in their base school will have the option to return there if they wish.
Officials pointed to the district's other standalone school, Early College High School, as an example of what Scholars Academy could be, but questions still arose about many issues, including how those Scholars students would be ranked.
Winters said that he wants to be sure that the board clarifies how student rankings will happen as a result of making Scholars a freestanding institution.
Myrick said in August that the Scholars program originally began with 25 students, because at the time there were “not many options for students performing at high levels”, and that back then there were only one or two AP-level courses offered at the base high schools.
Now, Myrick said, the district has options at all the high schools for AP (advanced placement) classes, dual enrollment classes for college credits, technology and STEM options.
Myrick said if this proposal goes through, Scholars would be the district's smallest school with approximately 200 students.
She said some of the advantages for Scholars to stand on its own would include that the school would be allowed to be ranked publicly for the accomplishments of the students, and all of their achievement date would stay at Scholar's instead of going back to their base schools.
Opportunities for LIFE scholarships would not be affected, Myrick said, but the number of Palmetto Fellowship scholarship recipients would be smaller based on new rankings.
Parents have expressed concern on social media that they did not know this discussion was underway, and some parents don’t want any changes made.
“As a Scholars Academy parent of a recent graduate, a parent of a current Scholars Junior, and President of the PTSO, we are disappointed that the HCS Board is once again considering a major change to the Scholars Academy,” said parent Diane Richardson in an emailed statement. “To change Scholars Academy in any way would not only be a disservice to our district, but especially to all of the students who work so hard to complete this rigorous program.”
She said the students there thrive in that environment, “just like it is now” and “it would be a shame” to change it in any way.
“As for the current students there, they committed to a four-year program, designed in the way that it is currently. We believe that for HCS to go back on that now would be disingenuous. We all feel very strongly that no changes need to be made to one of the finest academic programs in the U.S., and we hope that the Board will see it that way, too,” Mrs. Richardson said.
Hunter Kuperman, a student at Scholars, said that he enjoys waking up to go to school, where he feels his classmates are like a family that helps each other succeed. If Scholars students are made to compete against each other for scholarships and recognition as a standalone school, Cooperman said it won't be Scholars anymore.
Many speakers invited the board to come to Scholars and AAST to see the environment that the students say makes the schools what they are.
Wesley Finkley, a minister in the community, said "if it's not broke, don't fix it."
"If you break this program it will never be the same," Finkley said.
The curriculum committee is made up of Todd, Myrick, District 7 member Janet Graham, and District 5 member Janice Morreale, along with Superintendent Rick Maxey.