First Scholars Academy Graduates Lead Way

May 30, 2011 at 11:10 am
By LEE G. HEALY, Spartanburg Herald-Journal

Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 3:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 12:26 a.m.

Boiling Springs High School senior Hilary Martin expects to graduate from college two years early. Saif Alimohamed, a Dorman High School senior, already has 71 college credits under his belt and plans to exempt from a year of courses at Wofford College.

Martin and Alimohamed are two of 19 Spartanburg County seniors who became the first graduating class of the Scholars Academy Monday night. For all four of their high school years, Scholars Academy students earn dual high school and college credits at the University of South Carolina Upstate. For most, the extra work adds up to big college savings, both in time and tuition.

The 19 Scholars Academy graduates earned a total 1,148 college credits. Individually, students averaged between 60 and 70 credits each, which, depending on college credit transfer requirements, can equal up to two years already completed.

Scholars Academy is a collaboration between all seven Spartanburg school districts and USC Upstate. The program is paid for with minimal per student funding from the school districts and largely by a $2.6 million federal grant. Students pay nothing to participate in the program.

Scholars Academy participants must apply for the program during their eighth-grade year. By next year, 113 students from all school districts will be participating in the academy. Graduates this year come from all districts except 4 and 7.

Students’ first two years in the academy are spent earning credits that will count toward high school graduation requirements. Most of these classes are taken at USC Upstate with other academy students.

“I didn’t want to go to high school and be bored with all the work,” said Jonaca Cooper-Rookard, a Dorman High School senior who earned a full ride to Howard University. “I wanted a challenge.”

“We were the kids who never had to study, never had to open our books,” Martin said. “After the first test we realized we can’t rely on our memorization skills anymore.”

During students’ junior and senior years, course offerings were more varied. Students were mixed into classes with Upstate students and learned to excel at college-level curriculum.

“Colleges have been very impressed by the level of academic work they have achieved,” said Melissa DeLoach, director of the Scholars Academy. “From day one they were ready to take on the challenge.”

The graduating class will receive almost $2 million in scholarships, DeLoach said. Most students will be attending college fairly close to home, she said, since credits are more likely to transfer at USC than Duke or Harvard. Students have worked hard, DeLoach said, and want to take advantage of the credits they’ve already earned.

“In two years, most of them are going to have their degrees, and they’re going to be competitive in going to Stanford or Duke and getting their graduate degrees.”

In addition to receiving course credits, DeLoach said academy students are walking away with an increased self-confidence, independence and maturity.

“I’ve seen them come out of their shell,” DeLoach said. “I think it’s expanded their social circles. I’ve seen them grow as friends. They respect each other immensely.”

“You learn how to put yourself out there and get to know people,” added Erin Burnett, a Boiling Springs High senior who will attend Wofford in the fall. “You learn to rely on yourself.”

Scholars Academy students had the unique task of balancing high school and college commitments. Many chose to participate in extracurricular activities at their high school and realized time management skills they say will be critical when they attend the college of their choice in the fall.

“I think if you want your (typical) high school experience, you can have it,” Alimohamed said.

Macy Tate, a Boiling Springs High senior, juggled her Scholars Academy classes while acting as captain of her high school’s golf team. Like Martin, Tate will attend USC in the fall and expects to graduate with a four-year degree after just two years.

“You have to give up your (traditional) high school experience to come here, but at the same time, you set your own high school experience,” Tate said. “I think that’s what separates us from the rest.”

The first class of the Scholars Academy held its graduation Monday evening at USC Upstate.