Myrtle Beach may get ‘elite’ athletics high school that helps students graduate with college diplomas

Grand Strand

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — A chain of charter schools known for its dual-enrollment model and self-described “elite” athletics program is eyeing the Grand Strand for its next location.

“We are really interested in Myrtle Beach,” said Todd Helms, the director of new school development for Pinnacle Charter Academies.

Atlantic Collegiate Academy would enroll students in the ninth through twelfth grades, starting with 400 students in its first year before increasing to 700 when it is fully built out, according to a letter its planning committee submitted to the South Carolina Department of Education. The prospective school originally intended to seek state approval this year, but has delayed the process due to the pandemic. 

It was one of five local schools that submitted letters of intent to seek approval during the state’s last application cycle. However, only one — Grand Strand Charter Arts High School — submitted a full application. The performing arts charter school later withdrew its application due to the pandemic, and plans to submit again during the next approval cycle.

Atlantic Collegiate Academy would contract with Pinnacle Charter Academies, a for-profit charter management organization that would run the school, develop its curriculum and handle finances.

Pinnacle Charter Academies’s existing schools include Gray Collegiate Academy in West Columbia, Oceanside Collegiate Academy in Mount Pleasant and Legion Collegiate Academy in Rock Hill. 

Public charter schools are tuition free and open to all students. If more students apply than a school has space for, then a random lottery is held to determine enrollment. 

Dual-enrollment schools allow students to earn college credits while pursuing their high school diplomas. Helms said the school will partner with the University of South Carolina for the credits, which will be free for the students to earn.

The average student at a Pinnacle Charter Academies school graduates with 40 college credits, according to Helms, and some finish with 60 — enough for an associate degree. 

One of the schools’ selling points is the athletic component. 

“On the business side of things, that separates you from a lot of other charter schools,” said Christopher Parsons, a member of the Atlantic Collegiate Academy’s organization committee.

About half of the Pinnacle schools’ student populations are also athletes, according to Helms, who said that the three schools have won more than a dozen state championships within seven years. 

High schools are typically more expensive to run than elementary, middle and junior high schools, and charter high schools typically end up either forgoing athletic programs, or waiting years to fund even a field. Helms said the Pinnacle schools lease their fields as part of their budgets, and also add on in phases. 

Being run by a charter school management organization, he said, is an advantage.

“You have to understand the business side of a public charter school, and you have to run it like a business as a public charter school,” Helms said.

The organization considers a full school to be 700 students, who are split into two separate schedules with about 20 students to a classroom. The Mount Pleasant school has 700 students, with another 500 on a waiting list, according to Helms. 

He said the organization will meet with parents if there’s interest in opening a school in the area. 

Parsons said there’s a local need and desire for it.

“There’s a lot of kids I think that model will work for,” he said. 

Helms said the pandemic set the planning process back by at least a year, but that there’s talks about submitting in the next approval round, which starts in November.

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