5 Questions for Catherine Spencer, Academic Magnet High School

By: Andrew Campanella

Last Upated: April 15, 2021


Academic Magnet High School in South Carolina is ranked the best public high school in America according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 rankings. 


Read: HIGHLIGHTING HAPPINESS: At America’s top public high school, a focus on service and fun


Andrew Campanella: Tell me about Academic Magnet High School’s overall approach to education and how you’ve managed to be ranked the best high school in America.

Catherine Spencer, head of school at Academic Magnet High School: The idea behind Academic Magnet is to set a maximum, not a minimum, bar for a high school diploma. Academic Magnet requires considerably more credits and very specific course work in order to receive a high school diploma. We require four years of just about everything: English, math, science and social studies. That’s well above the South Carolina high school diploma requirements. And we also require four years of consecutive foreign language. Our students– and this is one of the cornerstones of the program– participate in two years worth of research and thesis preparation and then development and presentation over their junior and senior year. All of our juniors are required to take a course called Advanced Placement Seminar, which deals with presentation skills, analysis skills, research development skills, group presentation skills toward developing in their senior year their own individualized research project. [They] write their thesis and present and defend it in the spring of their senior year. We have 100% graduation rate and 100% of our students receive scholarships of one form or another.

Andrew: How does your school motto, “scholarship and honor,” play a role in student life? 

Catherine: This is what I love about our students. Our students came to me actually at the beginning of this school year saying, “we need a Latin motto.” This wasn’t faculty initiated, wasn’t parent initiated, wasn’t initiated by the principal. I think it’s absolutely marvelous. They vetted several mottoes. They presented them to the entire staff. They presented them to parent groups. They presented them to the student body. We ended up with “eruditio et honor,” which we feel really is a pithy and very appropriate description of our school, because we place as much emphasis on character and leadership as we do on grades.

Andrew: What would you say makes Academic Magnet High School unique? 

Catherine: We have extraordinary service ethos. A lot of our students and their research projects will have some kind of global impact. To me, this is what the essence of Academic Magnet is.

Andrew: With all this focus on academics and scholarship and character development, is the school also fun?

Catherine: Absolutely. Nearly 60% of our kids participate in competitive athletics, so they certainly have fun in athletics. If you interview any kid here one of the first things they’re going to talk about are the fun events that happen on campus. We just had this big AP picnic where we also had the opportunity to celebrate being number one. We had a DJ, we had the jazz band, games, free pizza, free ice cream, free popsicles, food trucks. It was fabulous. Two hours of just a fun afternoon.

Andrew: How do you celebrate National School Choice Week?

Catherine: We use a lot of the National School Choice paraphernalia. We use this particularly when we are bringing student groups and parent groups in to tour our school, so that idea of making the choice that works for you is really forefront in everybody’s mind.

When you choose to be here, you have a personal investment. To me that’s the bottom line. Whether it’s the personal investment on the part of the parent or the part of the student, and we’d like to think that it really is a personal investment with both, it makes a huge difference in the way you approach learning. Because it’s about you. It’s not about everybody else. It’s not an “I have to,” it’s an, “I want to.” 

This may not be the the right one for you, but there is a place out there for you. We’d like you to think about us, see if you think it’s the right fit. But if this isn’t your choice, there are options. And you as a parent and student should really take advantage of school choice.


Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.



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