Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the potential approval and opening dates of the school.

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – A public charter school with a mission to help high school dropouts get their diplomas could open in Horry County next year.

“This is about giving these kids hope, and there are so many men and women across this country who don’t have hope for their future, and it’s sad,” said Mark Graves, the co-founder, executive vice president and chief engagement officer for Acceleration Academies, which would manage the school. 

Horry County Acceleration Academy is one of two potential Horry County charter schools that have applied to the South Carolina Department of Education for approval this year. The other, Atlantic Collegiate Academy, offers students the chance to earn college credits in high school, and boasts an “elite” athletic program. Of 50 schools that told the state they planned to apply for approval this cycle, only 17 have submitted applications. 

Horry County Acceleration Academy will find out in April whether it has received approval.

The school hopes to draw in students before they reach 21 and lose the ability to earn a high school diploma. By using a blended in-person and online learning model, the model plans to re-engage those students, who it refers to as “graduation candidates.”

The model was approved last year to open throughout the state. Lowcountry Acceleration Academy, which opened in August in North Charleston, just held its first graduation ceremony.

Acceleration Academies has turned its attention to Horry County due to the 2,500 students in the area eligible for the program, Graves said. 

“We want to pursue those kiddos and make sure they have an opportunity to get those credits before they age out,” he said.

After they turn 21, students are only eligible to earn a GED.

About 500 Horry County students don’t graduate on time each year, Graves said. Acceleration Academies partners with local districts to use data to track down dropouts and convince them to join the school. 

It can be hard to gauge support until a school opens, according to Aimee Lassor, the chair of the board of Lowcountry Acceleration Academy. In North Charleston, Lassor said, enrollment jumped to 200 by the end of the first semester.

“I think it is the nature of the students we are trying to re-engage, that they don’t tend to be hugely forward-planning, and a lot of times have to take the word of other trusted friends who have chosen the program,” she said. 

The students often drop out of school not because they want to, but because they have to, Graves said. He points to a pair of sisters in Las Vegas who were on track to be valedictorians when their single mother was diagnosed with cancer. They dropped out to take care of her, and after she died, weren’t interested in returning. Acceleration Academies was able to recruit them to its program. 

The pandemic has exasperated the need for more flexibility in the school system, Graves said, since more students are having to quit school to get jobs to support their families, or become caretakers.

Horry County Acceleration Academy would offer year-round school and provide extended hours, staying open from 10 to 12 hours a day.

“A lot of students aren’t successful in a traditional school environment because they can’t be there from 8 to 4,” Lassor said. 

It is not a behavioral modification school. 

Acceleration Academies students are a specific population, she said, that needs specific interventions. Flexible school hours, for example, lets students learn around their personal schedule.

Its different approach means that students take a single class at a time. Students meet daily with a mentor, and receive a personal plan to help eliminate barriers to graduation. That can include helping with food and giving a student a free bus pass. For those with testing anxiety, the extended hours means students can stop by early in the morning or in the evenings, when fewer people will be there.

“This program isn’t simply about getting your high school diploma,” Graves said. “It’s also about the supports to make each of our students marketable and competitive for the local job markets.”

Graves said research shows that these students will most likely stay in the area. Neighbors want neighbors who are educated and contributing, he said, and the schools work closely with workforce development agencies to help students secure skills and jobs.

The school plans to analyze data to find where the students who need the program are clustered. Acceleration Academies is eyeing a space near a major thoroughfare and close to public transportation. The company typically spends $500,000 to retrofit a space. 

If it gets approval this spring, the school plans to open next year. Getting open quickly is a priority, Graves said, to try and help more students.

“If not, it’s another cohort of kids who age out,” he said. “There is a sense of urgency around this.”

Graves said about 1,500 students have graduated from an Acceleration Academies school since the first building opened in 2014.

Graves wants a destigmatized safety net in place to help students who have to drop out due to work or an unplanned pregnancy. The students, he said, are often seen as “throwaways.”

“A lot of our students have been given up on,” he said. “Sometimes by their own family.”

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