Horry County school board considers making Scholars Academy a high school

The Scholars Academy, a program Horry County Schools offers for advanced learners, could become a full-fledged high school if the Horry County school board moves forward with an idea presented Monday night.

Chairman Joe DeFeo said the board was exploring the move after some parents had asked board members to consider the possibility, but two parents spoke during the meeting for a group of Scholars parents who oppose any change in the program.

Julie Schexnayder, who has three children who have attended the Scholars Academy, said standalone status would be detrimental to students.

“It would change the dynamics of the environment from one of collaboration to fierce competitiveness,” Schexnayder said. “It would also put them at such a distinct disadvantage for scholarships and college acceptances because of class size.”

The Scholars Academy is a partnership between the district and Coastal Carolina University and provides academic rigor for gifted high school students. The program, in its 11th year, has 154 students who take a combination of Advanced Placement and college courses and can graduate with as much as two years of college course credits.

Scholars students attend all four years of high school on the CCU campus, but they are still considered part of the base high schools in their home attendance areas, where they are eligible to take part in extracurricular activities – from sports to Mock Trial competition and proms. Their academic performance also is factored in with that of students at the base schools, which officials say sometimes brings complaints when Scholars students take the coveted valedictorian and salutatorian spots at graduation, but they are not known to the students, teachers or administrators at their base schools.

Norman McQueen, program administrator for Scholars, said there are pros and cons to having a full-fledged high school, but the administration needs time to gather and analyze data – which must be pulled from the base schools – to see what such a move would mean for students, especially in the areas of class rankings and scholarship awards. He said every one of the 26 students in this year’s graduating class is on track to receive either the Palmetto Fellows or Life Scholarship, which require high class rankings, high SAT scores and high grade point averages to qualify for thousands of dollars in college tuition.

Becoming a standalone high school could lose money for Scholars students and the district because of the way rankings are calculated, McQueen said. For example, students must be in the top 3 percent of their class to earn Palmetto Fellows, but if the class has only 26 students, then only three students in the class would qualify, he said.

Many college applications also ask students in which percentile they fall in their class, Schexnayder said, adding if you’re 26 out of 26, that doesn’t look good.

“We are evaluating whether it should remain as a program or make that transition,” said board Vice Chairman Neil James. “We want to try to see what is best for all students.”

James said the geographical separation between base schools and Scholars students does create some communications challenges, and it is difficult for guidance counselors to stay in touch with Scholars students and keep them apprised of opportunities. He cited one student who missed out on a nomination for the Girls State program because her base school administrators didn’t know her.

“Obviously there’s not a united camp on this,” James said. “We heard from a number of folks from Scholars Academy [Monday] night, and I’m sure we have folks on the other side. … This is not going to be a hastily made decision.”