Aiken Scholars Academy: Creating a new school, culture, family

August 20, 2018

Starting Monday morning, Taloria Scott will get the chance to do something few students do: build a school from the ground up.

Not in the physical sense, of course, but she and her 49 fellow ninth graders will create the academic tone and culture of the Aiken Scholars Academy.

The Aiken County Public School District’s newest school, a partnership with USC Aiken, will offer some of the county’s brightest and most gifted and talented students opportunities to excel and shine in an academically challenging and rigorous environment.

Taloria said she’s ready for the challenge.

“I wanted to come here because it’s something different than normal high school,” Taloria said Thursday during orientation. “I’ll basically graduate in two years and move on to the university.”

Taloria said she’s looking forward to getting the basics of the first day behind her and getting down to real work but added she’ll miss her friends who will be freshmen at North Augusta High this year.

“Having to leave my friends was hard,” she said.

Angelina Scott, Taloria’s mom, said she’s looking forward to her daughter being challenged.

“She’s excelled and exceeded standards,” Angelina said. “She’s already focused. Now, she’ll have a direction in a world that’s so competitive.”

Angelina said the choice to apply to and attend the Aiken Scholars Academy was Taloria’s.

“I know how smart she is. Her saying, ‘Mom, I want this.’ That was music to my ears,” Angelina said.

The ninth graders – the class of 2022 - will take classes taught by Aiken County Public School teachers in the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center this year and next. Starting their junior year, the students will take college courses taught by USCA professors with USCA students and start earning credits toward their bachelor’s degrees.

Fifty more students will start next year.

Principal Martha Messick said the academy’s first 50 students embody the characteristics of the Phoenix, the school’s mascot: hopeful, driven, future-focused, visionary and risk-taking.

“That’s really what this school is,” said Messick, a former assistant principal who directed the advanced placement program at South Aiken High. “It’s a big risk for these students and families to leave the comforts of a traditional high school come into our school, which is completely new and different. Our students are very passionate, bold, driven, hopeful individuals.”

Before classes started this morning, students already have been involved, participating in the school’s branding and identity process. They chose the Phoenix as the school’s mascot after much discussion and rounds of voting at a brain-storming meeting last spring.

But branding and identity were only the first steps. Students now will help create the culture that will give the school its singular personality, Messick said.

“Aside from the excellent academic instruction, they get to build the culture of the school: When someone walks in the building, what do we want them to see, how do we want them to feel? What do we want them to walk away with?” Messick said.

“It’s a unique experience,” she continued. “I’ve never had that opportunity, and neither have any of our kids. They’ve always walked into a school that already existed.”

Teachers, too, will help create the new school’s culture.

Anne Poplin will teach English; Sharonda Jacobs, math; Jasmine Scott, science; and Lori Scott, social studies. Stephanie Alford is the school counselor, and Frances Spradley is the school secretary.

All teachers have graduate degrees, many in leadership and masters of teaching.

“We all share common beliefs related to education, but we all have very different experiences,” Messick said. “In most schools, you have a faculty and a culture that exists, and anyone a principal brings in fits his or her vision. For us, we got to pick teachers who embody what we envision for our culture.”

The community also will help shape the new school, and volunteering for community service will be part of being a scholar, Messick said.

Before school started, Messick spoke to Rotary, Kiwanis and the Aiken Chamber. She plans to start a lunch-n-learn series, bringing in community members to talk to students.

“We’re going to need them to be part of what we’re doing and make sure that we’re educating our students about the opportunities that exist out there for them,” she said.

Now that school has started, it’s time to get down to the business of education.

“Our number one focus is student learning with top-notch instruction going on in those classrooms to make sure that our students are prepared for the next two years,” Messick said. “But our other goal for this year is developing those relationships with our students, our parents, the community and USCA and building that culture. It’s a unique opportunity. We really do get to create a family.”

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