Sometimes the importance of a decision isn't clear until after the fact. For Jason Hemphill, the decision to enroll in Advanced Placement classes echoes more than 25 years later.
"It was a challenge, but I was forced to balance school and sports," Hemphill said. "I was a huge perfectionist back in high school and through college. AP courses forced me to challenge the 'perfection is necessary for success' assumption due to time constraints. Later in life, I found that this was a turning point to understand that being perfect is not a goal to judge yourself, but pushing yourself to your potential should be a goal for us all."
Today, Hemphill is a Principal Scientist for Abbott--formerly St. Jude Medical--whose work improves life-saving medical devices right here in Pickens County. In his 20-year career, he has 18 patents to his name, is a certified Professional Engineer in SC, and is a certified Project Management Professional. He is the picture of a successful graduate with a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and he can trace the seeds of that success to rigorous AP courses at Liberty High School.
"AP courses gave me the ability to see how college was going to be, but with the support structure and safety of high school," he said.
Kathy Grant, who was Hemphill's AP English teacher, is still active in the classroom, teaching another generation of students at Easley High. With 30 years of experience in teaching AP courses, she's an expert on how they can set students on a path to success. "AP English classes move at a faster pace and require more study than CP and Honors classes," Grant explained. "Students must be more dedicated to learning content, completing reading assignments, and more focused on growing their test taking skills—time management, reading and processing skills, and critical thinking skills." The benefits of this rigorous coursework reveal themselves in college; students are far more prepared for college courses, and may even begin taking sophomore-level courses in their freshman year.
For many years, AP courses have been considered the sole domain of only the highest-flying students. Now, all Pickens County students with an eye on college are encouraged to enroll.
"'Bigger Circles' is the term we use when talking about Advanced Placement," said Dr. Danny Merck, SDPC's superintendent. "I've seen the benefits of AP classes as a student, a teacher, a principal, and a parent. Sometimes students are afraid to enroll in AP classes because they don't know if they can keep up. What I've seen is that the long-term benefits of experiencing that level of academic rigor far outweigh the challenge of succeeding on AP exams. We want to expand the circle of students participating to be as wide as possible."
All four of the district's high schools have put this idea into action, increasing AP participation by 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, and another 24 Percent from 2016 to 2017 (as of 2/2/2017). Even though AP classes are rigorous, students don't have to ace every test in order for the classes to help their Grade Point Average.
"Typical high school classes allow students to earn up to a 4.0 GPA. AP classes go up to 5.0," said Lori Gwinn, SDPC's Director of Secondary Education. "In other words, a student earning a B in an Advanced Placement class gets the same GPA as a student earning an A in a regular high school class." Gwinn encourages students to ask their guidance counselors about taking AP classes as they begin to set their schedule for next school year. "February is when our course catalog comes out for the next year, so now is the time to start thinking about what AP classes to take," she said.
As Hemphill can attest, his decisions in high school are still paying off.
"When I look back at my career, AP course work gave me my first chance to push myself and see the fruits of my labor and effort in the reward of starting Clemson almost a sophomore. I feel like that lesson translated very positively to wanting to push myself in my career to now being in a successful job with a great family. As a manager at Abbott, I try to influence and encourage others to go back to school and get their degree to improve themselves and their career."