Academic Magnet

From left: Lucy Pinckney, assistant principal at Academic Magnet High School; Shabih Jafri, student body president, class of 2019; Gov. Henry McMaster; Davis Leath, student body president-elect, Class of 2020; and Catherine Spencer, principal. McMaster visited Academic Magnet after the school earned the top spot on a list of best high schools in the U.S.

You’ve likely seen a “best” series of some sort from the U.S. News and World Report. Best jobs, best colleges, best hospitals, best nursing homes, best schools. There’s even a specific series on best high schools in the country and this year one Lowcountry school topped that list. 

Academic Magnet High School located in North Charleston is already well-known in the local area, but now, being named Best High School in the country by the news magazine solidifies its top-notch reputation nationwide as well. 

The U.S. News Best High Schools rankings include data on more than 17,000 schools that were ranked on six factors based on performance on state assessments and how well the schools prepare students for college. 

What is it about this North Charleston public school that makes it the “best” in our nation? Well, for starters, all the classes offered at Academic Magnet High School are either honors or Advanced Placement. “We have high expectations of our students,” Principal Catherine Spencer explains. 

Students at Academic Magnet High School are selected based on test scores, teacher recommendations, writing and other criteria. Spencer reports that every year they have a waiting list of 75 to 150 students. Enrollment for all four grades totals 656, and 151 students graduated from the senior class this year. According to Spencer, “the students and the staff choose to be here. They don’t want to leave this school.” 

Katy Metzner-Roop, who has been teaching biology and marine biology at the school for 18 years, definitely concurs. AMHS is not a school that teachers leave. 

Metzner-Roop advises the ecology club, the Asian Awareness Club, the Pep Club and the Science Club. She also assists students in state competitions, including the South Carolina Junior Academy of Science, Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, the Lowcountry Science Fair and the Science Olympiad, where students attended nationals this year. 

“The students are the best part about AMHS. I am so lucky to be able to teach them. They are so bright and talented. I swear I learn just as much from them as they do from me. They put their heart and souls into being here, and it shows. The faculty is amazing, too. They go out of their way to help the students: extra hours, extracurriculars on weekends, they put forth 200 percent every day,” Metzner-Roop says. 

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All the classes offered at Academic Magnet High School are either honors or Advanced Placement.

Joy Altman who teaches French is a 17-year veteran of AMHS. She grew up in the area but spent many years away after completing her degrees. She was completing a doctoral degree while in Washington, D.C., and that was where she fell in love with the profession of teaching. From there, she spent a year teaching in France, and then two years at a boarding school in Switzerland before coming back home to Charleston.

“One of the ideas I have tried to encourage in my students I learned traveling and living in Europe. Europeans value languages and try to learn more than one, not with the idea of teaching them, but to use them for communication in a variety of capacities and professions. I try to instill the same idea in our students. No matter what they will study, I want them to continue their pursuit of language and culture in order to use their knowledge in their chosen fields,” she says. 

Altman is also a sponsor for student council and the school’s French honor society. “I love my relationship with the students. I have learned so much over the years about how young people learn, how they feel, and how I can best support them. I have been blessed to know each of them,” she says.

Some highlights from the AMHS annual report posted on their website are: 26 seniors from the class of 2018 being named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, an average composite score of 30.0 on the ACT and an SAT combined average score of 1395 from their students this year. 

Spencer explains that all the students are required to complete a research and thesis project to graduate that they start in their junior year. 

“They are required to prepare, research, present and write a paper about their project,” Spencer adds. “Some of their research has been published in professional journals at MUSC, The Citadel and the College of Charleston.”

She went on to say that 100 percent of their seniors go onto college after graduation and that 100 percent get scholarships. “They are all well above average on their exams for admission,” she boasts. She mentioned that they go to the best colleges in the country, including Yale, Duke and Harvard. Another student is going to NYU in Shanghai, while another is spending the summer in Oxford. 

Spencer spoke about two particular students whose research projects were used in the real world. “One student had parents from Bangladesh and he invented a filtration system that he took back to his parents’ country,” she explains. “They use that filtration for filtering out arsenic now.” 

She also thought about another young woman that completed a project on dental hygiene in developing countries. She wrote a pamphlet in Spanish that she took to Honduras and completed a workshop where they used the pamphlet to hand out to local villagers. 

“We marry academics with social impact and leadership,” Spencer says. 

With all the achievements, Spencer says that she can understand how much pressure it can be on a teenager. “We have high expectations and that can be stressful, so we do make time for fun.” 

The Monday after their Advance Placement exams, they had a school-wide party with a jazz band and popsicles. “The students would probably say their favorite part about AMHS is the pep rally, spirit week and fundraisers,” she admits. “We are a regular high school in many ways with fantastic athletics as well.”

In fact, AMHS has 50 percent participation in sports on 26 different teams, including track and field, soccer, football, baseball, softball, cheerleading, among many others. 

“We strive to have that balance,” Spencer adds.

Much of the school’s success also comes from the solid parent foundation, according to Spencer, who says that they fund travel expenses, provide snacks during exams, provide gift cards for teachers, and “just give us so much support in general.” 

Spencer also says that they have recently started recruiting students from middle schools in the area that may not perform at the level AMHS does.“We want all students who deserve to be here to have that chance,” she says. “They may be low income, but they are still high-achieving students and we want them here. We just aren’t on the radar to many of those students, but we want to be.” 

Since AMHS is a public school and a part of Charleston County School District, they can attract students from all socioeconomic classes, she says. 

Spencer has been working in education for 30 years. She says she has been a principal at schools in Egypt, Mexico and the United States, but that there is something special about AMHS. 

“While I am pleased at being named the best high school in the country by the U.S. News and World Report, I am not surprised,” she says. “I know a good thing when I see it. No matter the background of the student, if they are committed to be here, we can make their dreams come true.”

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