Aiken Scholars Academy has entered its third school year, and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect South Carolina, the year is an unusual one.
Established in a partnership between the Aiken County Public School District and USC Aiken, ASA is an exclusive high school that accepts 50 students each year into the new freshman cohort. Students spend the first two years taking honors and AP courses and begin taking college classes in their junior and senior years.
Masks and backpacks on, students filed inside Wednesday morning and got directions on where to go from school staff waiting near the entrance. Principal Martha Messick explained that safety is a top priority this year.
"Safety is the most important thing," Messick said. "It's always the most important thing – that hasn't changed. Students need to be able to feel safe in order to learn. When there's a positive, safe learning environment, students can succeed."
Most of ASA's students are attending in-person classes. Just three ASA students chose to enroll in Aiken Innovate, the school district's all-virtual program, Messick said.
Like other schools in Aiken County, ASA requires face masks and social distancing in its facilities. Janitorial services are provided by USCA staff, who clean and sanitize surfaces during the day and overnight, Messick said.
Because ASA falls under the Aiken County Public School District while also occupying space on the USCA campus, the school must maintain the COVID-19 safety expectations of both organizations.
USCA has different "alert levels" that could result in partial or full campus closures in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, and Messick said a university liaison will help determine whether the outbreak could affect ASA underclassmen, who remain in one building all day.
Fewer than 150 students are enrolled at ASA, and this small size helps the school maintain social distancing and, in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, conduct contact tracing, Messick said.
There are 96 total freshman and sophomores, who remain with their cohorts in the same classroom all day as different teachers cycle through, Messick said. This eliminates the need for busy hallway transitions.
Starting this year, new students at ASA will learn essential skills and prepare for rigorous college courses in the school's Phoenix Focus course. ASA teacher Sharonda Jacobs said the course focuses on these questions: "Who are you?", "Who am I?" and "Who are we?".
The Phoenix Focus course will also help students discover their own interests and prepare for their future careers, Messick said.
The school's 40 juniors, the first cohort accepted to the school, have begun taking college classes with USCA this year. Messick said watching their transition to becoming college students has been exciting.
"[The juniors] are doing amazing. They talk about being the students in the class that are helping everybody; they're engaged in discussion," Messick said.
One ASA junior, Jumanah Al-Soudi, said she is excited about attending college classes at USCA. She plans to study biology/pre-med after she graduates from high school.
The first two years, when students take honors and AP classes and prepare for the rigor of college classes, were difficult, Al-Soudi said, but the hard work paid off. She said it's nice to have more freedom to study and go where she wants during the day.
Overall, Al-Soudi said going to ASA has been a great experience.
"It's nice to be with my friends. It's like a big family. We all help each other to get the work done," Al-Soudi said.
For more information about ASA, visit the school's website at acpsd.net/Page/83.