The news was out before the sound of the school announcement system crackled through the halls: Academic Magnet High, long regarded as the top-performing high school in South Carolina, had climbed to No. 1 in a national ranking of public high schools.

Teachers cheered. Parents were elated. Gov. Henry McMaster paid a visit to the school, and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham gave the school a shout-out on the House floor.

The April 30 ranking by U.S. News & World Report was one more feather in the cap of Academic Magnet, a highly selective magnet school in North Charleston that screens for the most academically gifted students in Charleston County. Selective admissions, a heavy emphasis on Advanced Placement courses and a famously rigorous course load all set the school apart.

"When you choose to be somewhere, you have a personal investment," said Principal Catherine Spencer. "It's not a school for everyone."

That personal investment was on display on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, when a group of upperclassmen from Academic Magnet sat clustered around a pile of exam review books and open laptops at the nearby Orange Spot Coffee.

Asked what incoming freshmen should expect, they all mentioned hard work.

"You need to anticipate the workload. You have to want it," said Lesesne Early, a junior.

"You can't go expecting, 'This is going to get me into an out-of-state college.' You have to go intrinsically wanting to learn more," said Kate Kuisel, a senior.

The requirements for graduation at Academic Magnet are higher than at traditional public schools, including four consecutive years of a foreign language and at least four Advanced Placement courses. Many students go beyond that; Kuisel was in the midst of studying for five AP exams in the course of two weeks.

The final requirement at Academic Magnet is a two-year research project, culminating in an oral defense during their senior year. Some of the projects are cutting-edge, like Jenny Yao's thesis from 2018 which investigated a new approach to repairing heart muscles after a heart attack.

Some students start even younger. Sophomore Ishraq Haque recently tested and manufactured filtration systems that use laterite soil to remove arsenic and other toxins from drinking water in his father's hometown in Bangladesh. His presentation recently took third place for environmental science at the national Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, and several of his filters are currently in use in Satkhira District of Bangladesh.

"This is what it means to be here. It's looking for that — whether it's local, whether it's regional, whether it's global impact — along with your own personal achievement," Spencer said.

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On Thursday, May 16, 2019, students wait for the traffic to thin before leaving Academic Magnet High School, which recently reclaimed its title as No. 1 public high school in the country, according to the latest rankings from U.S. News & World Report. Wade Spees/Staff

A difficult path

A recent collection of seniors' advice to freshmen in The Talon, Academic Magnet's student newspaper, ran the gamut from cheerful to precautionary to ominous.

“If you find yourself stressing out, just realize that things will get better," one student said.

“Really, really think about if you want to come here," another offered. "Don’t just come because you got in.”

At the far end of the spectrum: “If you don’t want to have mental breakdowns, don’t come here."

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Principal Catherine Spencer on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Academic Magnet High School, which recently reclaimed its title as No. 1 public high school in the country, according to the latest rankings from U.S. News & World Report. Wade Spees/Staff

Principal Spencer does not dispute the claim that the school is difficult. The 11th grade, when students begin to prepare their senior research project, is a famously difficult year for students. Teachers and counselors are trained to look for warning signs of mental health problems among high-performing students.

"It can be a pressure cooker," Spencer said. Since coming to the school in 2017, Spencer has helped run a summer camp for incoming freshmen and paired new students with senior mentors.

Dasher Early, Lesesne's mother, said the school does a good job helping students cope with stress. She does her part at home, too.

"I have just always tried to be Lesesne's soft place to land. I don't stress with her about her grades or her homework because she does that enough on her own. I want her to come home and it be calm and stress-free," Early said.

On Monday, the school held a student assembly with pizza and ice cream — partly to celebrate the No. 1 ranking, partly to celebrate the end of AP exams for the year. 

Making the grade

In a state whose education system as a whole ranks among the worst-performing in the nation, Academic Magnet stands out. The school has a 100 percent graduation rate, and 100 percent of its graduates earn college scholarships. Elsewhere in the state, entire school districts have produced graduating classes without a single college-ready graduate.

Various websites and publications have attempted national rankings of schools, and Academic Magnet frequently breaks the top 100. Niche ranked the school No. 40 in its most recent rankings, while The Best Schools ranked it No. 13

For the purposes of this year's rankings, U.S. News used historic student data from the 2016-17 school year. Forty percent of a school's score was based on either Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses and exams, factoring in the number and breadth of courses taken as well as the pass rate.

Another 50 percent came from state-level assessments — in Academic Magnet's case, that meant the state End of Course exams, which students passed with flying colors. The remaining 10 percent was based on graduation rate.

Critics have questioned the methodology and even the wisdom of ranking public schools. Some students at Academic Magnet regarded the rankings with statistical skepticism, and Spencer agreed that the rankings are never perfect.

"Rankings are rankings. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth," Spencer said.

One effect of all the national attention is that Academic Magnet ends up on the radar of "informed parents," according to Spencer. She said that may have been a factor that led to the school's dwindling racial and economic diversity since its inception on the campus of Burke High in 1988.

Academic Magnet has 650 students this year. Spencer said she plans to enroll between 680 and 690 in the fall, pushing the limits of the North Charleston campus as demand for seats keeps outstripping supply. Like many a parent at Charleston County School Board meetings before her, she said she would like the district to create a second campus and replicate her school's success.

"We need Academic Magnet 2," Spencer said.

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On Thursday, May 16, 2019, Sully Johnston teaches the highest level of math — multivariable calculus — at Academic Magnet High School, which recently reclaimed its title as No. 1 public high school in the country, according to the latest rankings from U.S. News & World Report. Wade Spees/Staff

Room to improve

The relative scarcity of minority and low-income students at Academic Magnet has been a sore point for years. Just 3.5 percent of the student body consisted of African American students last school year, and 7 percent came from low-income homes.

When Academic Magnet junior Caelan Bailey heard the news about the No. 1 ranking, her mind went to those statistics.

"You're skimming off the most privileged kids from the Charleston County School District. Of course they'll do well," Bailey said.

In addition to a tough admissions process that places emphasis on a writing sample, applicants to Academic Magnet are up against some students who spent their previous years in private school or receiving private tutoring in an attempt to hedge their bets.

On balance, Bailey said, she has great classmates who push her to work harder, and she never has to worry about slackers on group projects. Still, she misses going to school in a more diverse environment.

The school is working to improve on that front, said Spencer. Last year, it received a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to help identify and prepare high-achieving middle schoolers from low- to mid-income homes. The district has also been offering admission to the top two graduates of every middle school in the district, provided they can pass the entrance exam.

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Academic Magnet High School, which recently reclaimed its title as No. 1 public high school in the country, according to the latest rankings from U.S. News & World Report. Wade Spees/Staff Thursday, May 16, 2019

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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