Horry County Schools moves forward with AAST, Scholars changes at contentious meeting

Horry County’s Academy for the Arts, Science, and Technology will no longer offer a four-year STEM program and the Scholars Academy will become a standalone school next year.

The HCS board voted to enact the changes during Monday’s board meeting in front of large audience primarily comprised of parents and students associated with the programs who wanted them to remain the same.

Dozens spoke against the proposals during public comment ahead of the vote, though a handful also spoke in favor of the changes, often citing what they view as “unfair advantages” that students at the academies have in obtaining higher GPAs.

Public comment had been moved to the end of board meetings in recent months, but Chairman Ken Richardson moved it back up to allow the public to speak before the final vote was taken, he said.

While both motions ultimately passed, the original Scholars Academy proposal was amended to allow students currently enrolled to be “grandfathered in,” allowing them to continue to be ranked with their base schools through their graduation.

Board member John Poston proposed the amendment, citing a “promise” the district made to those students who enrolled under the current conditions. That amendment passed 6-4, while Poston’s other proposed amendment to eliminate ranking among Scholars Academy students passed unanimously.

Poston, whose children have attended Scholars Academy and AAST, and fellow board member Ray Winters ended up being the only two to vote against the entire amended proposal.

Superintendent Rick Maxey noted that, since the enrolled students are being “grandfathered in,” the freshmen class that attends beginning in 2020 will technically be its own school of about 50 students.

The board voted 7-3 to eliminate freshman and sophomore grades at AAST’s STEM program beginning next year, with board member Chris Hardwick joining Poston and Winters in opposition. Students currently enrolled in the four-year program will be allowed to stay at AAST through graduation.

The changes

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

The changes were formally proposed by the board’s newly created Curriculum and Instruction Committee after its first meeting in August and discussed at length during the board’s Sept. 23 board meeting.

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.

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, who spoke during Monday’s public comment, 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 board member Sherrie Todd pointed out during a previous meeting that the program was initially only created for juniors and seniors before low attendance levels forced the district to expand the opportunity.

Maxey presented data at the meeting showing that more than 400 applicants to the program have been denied each of the past few years.

What about scholarships?

In-state scholarships are a primary concern for Scholars students, but Maxey showed data that found the district as a whole would gain scholarship money by making the academy a standalone school.

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 data presented by Maxey showed that the Class of 2019 students earned 173 Palmetto scholarships and 560 LIFE scholarships, which offer less money with less stringent standards, under the current system. If Scholars was a standalone, those numbers would rise to 177 and 581, respectively, equating to about $536,800 more available to students in the district over the course of their four collegiate years.

Maxey also noted that 25 of the 36 current Scholars Academy seniors would be eligible for the Palmetto scholarship regardless of class rank, while five students who are currently eligible would instead only be eligible for LIFE scholarships if it was standalone.

Maxey also showed that those 36 students benefited more than $700,000 in tuition avoidance by earning college credits at Coastal Carolina University courses that the district funds.

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 will 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 will still be eligible for both honors under these changes, but Scholars students will not because they will no longer be ranked.

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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.