Potential changes to Horry Schools’ AAST, Scholars Academy: Why now and what’s at stake?

The Horry County Schools board is considering major changes to two of its program schools, Scholars Academy and the Academy for the Arts, Science, and Technology.

The proposed changes, which would be enacted beginning next school year, would turn Scholars Academy into a standalone high school, while eliminating the freshman and sophomore grades from AAST’s STEM program.

The proposal was discussed at length during the board’s Sept. 23 board meeting, where numerous parents and students associated with the programs spoke against the changes.

Board chairman Ken Richardson said the issue will not be brought up for vote during the board’s work session Monday. That means the earliest a vote could be taken is at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 21. Here’s a look at how this proposal came about and what’s at stake:

Where did this proposal come from?

The changes were formally proposed by the board’s newly created Curriculum and Instruction Committee after its first meeting in August.

Board member Janet Graham, who serves on the committee, said these programs have been closely monitored for years, and the proposed changes are aimed at improving opportunities for students in the school district as a whole.

Fellow committee members Janice Morreale and Sherrie Todd, who serves as committee chair, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Some parents and students have complained that these proposed changes appeared to come out of nowhere, but at least with regards to Scholars Academy, this is a discussion the board has had in years past.

Since the academy began in 2003, the district has formed a committee on three separate occasions to explore the possibility of turning it into a standalone school, most recently in 2014.

The issue also came up in 2018, when a Socastee High School student formulated a petition to separate Scholars Academy, AAST and Academy for Technology and Academics from the base schools, but then-chairman Joe DeFeo noted during a February board meeting that neither he, nor any other board members had expressed any interest to bring the proposal up for a vote.

Previous discussions about removing the freshman and sophomore grades from AAST’s STEM program don’t appear in any public meeting minutes, though Todd pointed out last meeting that the program was initially only created for juniors and seniors before low attendance levels forced the district to expand the opportunity.

The timing coincides with the board expanding STEM opportunities K-12, though board member Ray Winters noted last board meeting that he might feel more comfortable allowing the newly expanded program to prove effective over time before altering AAST.

What was the result of the 2014 study?

The committee that met several times in 2014 produced a 64-page report detailing its findings while exploring the possibility of making Scholars Academy its own school.

The report detailed numerous data points, including the potential effects on in-state scholarships, graduation honors and school rankings.

The data showed that total in-state scholarship money available to district students would’ve slightly increased during the 2012-13 school year if Scholars Academy was its own school, but slightly decreased under that scenario in 2013-14.

Velna Allen, executive director of high schools at the time, told the board that the committee found that the base schools’ report card rankings wouldn’t have changed, but their average SAT score and Advanced Placement exam passage rate would decline by separating Scholars Academy.

The report also detailed a student survey, which showed nearly 90 percent of Scholars Academy students opposed the change and about 86 percent stated that it would’ve affected their decision to enroll there if it was a standalone school.

Ultimately, not a single member of the study committee, which included Morreale and Graham, voted to recommend that the academy completely separate from base schools.

Graham said she couldn’t recall serving on the committee and therefore can’t address what her thought pattern was at the time.

The most popular recommendation among committee members was to continue operating Scholars Academy as a program school, but not allow those students to speak at the base school graduation ceremonies.

When the report was presented to the board, DeFeo said he worried that if he brought the issue up for a vote, board members would end up turning it into a standalone school, so no vote was ever taken based on the committee’s findings.

How would these changes benefit the school district?

HCS staff created a list of advantages for each change, including increased recognition for Scholars Academy at state and national levels.

Board member John Poston, who’s had children participate in both programs, agreed that reporting Scholars Academy as an independent school might bring more accolades, but he wondered whether the district is “in the business of being in the newspaper or in the business of educating and providing the best opportunities for our students?”

“I hope it’s the latter,” he said.

The advantage list does note, though, that the increased national recognition could boost Scholars Academy students’ chances at gaining admission to top colleges and universities.

Other advantages included eliminating communication issues between the academy and base schools and reducing the workload among the base school’s record-keeping employees.

The primary advantage mentioned for the proposed change to AAST is increased opportunities for students who want to take specialized STEM courses during 11th and 12th grades.

The Academy of the Arts, Science and Technology in Myrtle Beach currently serves students in ninth through 12th grade. Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

The program received about 600 applications last year, but was only able to accept about 150 students, according to Todd. By eliminating the freshman and sophomore grades, more openings will be available for students entering 11th grade since capacity at the academy will remain the same.

More slots will also be available for students taking Career and Technical Education courses at AAST.

What are the potential negative impacts to the schools?

Scholars Academy parents and students have lauded the noncompetitive, collaborative environment created at the school, but worry it might be lost if the students are ranked against each other as opposed to the students at their base schools.

“I came (to Scholars) with just one other kid from my middle school, so I was forced to make friends, but it was easy because everyone intertwines here,” senior Stephen Stec said. “If we’re forced to compete against each other, that would change.”

Stec said he knows many younger classmates who intend to transfer back to their base school if the separation is approved.

On the AAST side, there are concerns that the same recruitment problems the program had back when the district decided to expand to 9th and 10th grade students could return.

Graham said she doesn’t believe interest will decrease, but Poston noted that students are already transitioning to a new school between 8th grade and 9th grade, but transitioning to a new school after 10th grade could be more difficult.

While Scholars Academy and AAST both have relatively small student populations compared to the base schools, any small influx of students back to the base schools could lead to capacity issues.

Carolina Forest High School is the base school for about 260 students at the two academies, and Myrtle Beach High School and St. James High School, both of which are at least 95 percent full based on building capacity, are the base schools for a combined 189 students.

Some parents during the last board meeting expressed concerns about accreditation at Scholars Academy, but S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said he wouldn’t anticipate any issues, comparing the situation to a new school opening in any district, which happens every year.

What are potential negative impacts to the students?

Students currently enrolled in AAST’s STEM program won’t be affected by the changes because the proposal would allow those currently enrolled to continue on with the four-year practice, though middle school students preparing to apply would now have to wait until 11th grade.

The proposed change to Scholars Academy would immediately impact current juniors, sophomores and freshmen starting next school year. Some board members have expressed a willingness to consider “grandfathering in” current students — allowing them to graduate as members of their base school — but that’s not the proposal made by the Curriculum Committee.

Rob Shelton, whose daughter is a freshman at Scholars, said this isn’t what his daughter “bargained for when she worked so hard to get the scores necessary to qualify for Scholars.”

Though this possibility has been an ongoing discussion for years, HCS spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier confirmed that the applicants aren’t informed during registration that Scholars Academy may become a standalone school.

In-state scholarships are a primary concern for Scholars students.

The Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, which awards students attending certain in-state colleges and universities up to $6,700 during freshman year and $7,500 for years 2-4, requires high school students to score at least a 1200 on the SAT, earn a 3.5 GPA and rank in the top 6 percent at their school. Students could also qualify with at least a 1400 SAT score and 4.0 GPA.

The small class sizes at Scholars Academy mean only a few each year would rank in the top 6 percent.

Other in-state scholarships include the LIFE Scholarship (up to $5,000 per year including $300 for books) and HOPE Scholarship (up to $2,800 for the first year).

The 2014 committee’s report showed that fewer students would be eligible for the Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, but more would qualify for LIFE Scholarships if Scholars was its own school.

Scholars and AAST students are currently able to participate in sports and extracurricular activities with their base schools, and that would still be allowed if the changes are implemented.

One major change would be at base schools’ graduation ceremonies. Last year, three Scholars students and five AAST students served as their base schools’ valedictorian or salutatorian, who both give speeches during graduation.

AAST students would still be eligible for both honors under these changes, but Scholars would have its own valedictorian and salutatorian.

Much of the discussion back in 2014 revolved around impacts to graduation ceremonies, and Poston said he believes it will continue to be an issue until these concerns are addressed.

“The question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘… do we need to fundamentally change the program to solve this one issue?’,” he said.

Related stories from Myrtle Beach Sun News

Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.