Horry County's Scholars Academy reviewed to be standalone high school

An Horry County Schools committee met Wednesday to study the pros and cons of making the Scholars Academy a standalone high school and eventually expects to make a recommendation to the Horry County school board.

The committee – comprised of district officials, teachers and parents – have been examining data to determine if such a move would benefit Scholars, the district’s program for advanced learners, as well as the district’s high schools.

“Everything we do should be about meeting all students’ needs,” said Velna Allen, HCS executive director of high schools, “but we need to determine what has brought this back to the table.”

This is the third time a committee has been appointed to study the issue since the program began in 2003, said Teal Harding, district spokeswoman, who said the issue comes up every four or five years. The committee will have another meeting on July 30.

The Scholars Academy is a partnership between the district and Coastal Carolina University and provides academic rigor for gifted high school students. Students 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 of their high school years on the CCU campus, but are considered part of their base high schools in their home attendance areas. The students are eligible to take part in sports and other extracurricular activities that Scholars – with about 180 students – can’t offer, and their academic performance is factored in with other students at their base schools.

Some parents and teachers have expressed concern that some Scholars students step into coveted roles, such as junior marshal or valedictorian, at the base schools, where they may not have participated in activities or are not known by the students, teachers or administrators. They say it is unfair to high-achievers who have opted for a traditional high school experience to be bumped from those roles or bumped down in grade standings, which affect scholarships.

All of the 26 students in the last Scholars graduating class were on track in May to receive either the state’s 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. Many Scholars students don’t take the in-state money, opting to attend out-of-state institutions that sometimes will match those funds. Some institutions also offer scholarships specifically for high school valedictorians.

Beth Cox, a teacher representing St. James High School, said most of their Scholars students don’t come back to participate in activities at the school. She said their teachers are bothered most by the possible loss of scholarships for students whose grade point averages may be slightly lower than those of Scholars students, and who have fewer higher-level course offerings.

“We come close, but there’s no way our students can compete,” Cox said. “We’re talking the difference between tenths and 100ths – more often 100ths [of a point].”

Scholars offerings are mainly honors and Advanced Placement courses. The offerings differ – as do sports and extracurricular activities – based on the high school’s size and interests.

“We’ve tried hard to expand dual credit and AP opportunities,” said Cindy Ambrose, HCS chief academic officer.

Scholars teacher Georgia Holley said she still has more questions than answers. She said there would be some benefits for Scholars if it were a high school because the high grades would put it in top school rankings, such as one by U.S. News and World Report, but she is not sure it would be a positive for the district. The performance of Scholars students affects things such as graduation rates, attendance and National Merit Scholarships, which are part of a school’s state report card.

Taking those students out of the mix could lower the ranking of a high school, depending on its size and the number of its students who attend Scholars, Allen said.

Some committee members said the issue may boil down to the perception that more resources are being given to some students rather than others and misinformation about the various choices offered by the district.

“You have to make the decision that is best for your child and find out what each school has to offer, rather than just wanting a title,” said Tracy Huggins, representing the Carolina Forest attendance area.

Horry County is not the only district struggling with these types of issues, said Ambrose, who said there has been talk at the state level about looking at rankings and the amount of emphasis being placed on them. Florida schools also are debating whether to have valedictorians and salutatorians, something that is governed in the district by board policy, Allen said.

A deadline has not been set for a final recommendation. At its July 30 meeting the committee will examine more data, some of which is still coming in from the past school year.