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Emilia Olson, an 11th-grade student at Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, S.C.
Emilia Olson, an 11th-grade student at Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, S.C. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

How would you describe your school?

The school opened in 2010. I came here in eighth grade. It serves sixth through 12th grade. We have about 500 kids now. The school’s so small, you kind of know everyone. It’s really diverse. We focus on gifted education. You can really kind of go in whatever path you want. For example, I’m really interested in languages, so I’m taking two languages right now. I’m in Spanish 4, and I just started French 1. I’m also studying Welsh on my own. Senior year, you get to take classes at College of Charleston or Trident Tech, as well as doing a capstone, which is pretty much a thesis in whatever you’re interested in.

What makes your school unique?

We are so close with our teachers. I know pretty much all of my teachers on a really personal level. I think that really contributes to how unique this school is. I’ve never gotten that at a school before. They know your family, and they know about you and your siblings. For example, Mrs. Reese, she’s like my second mother. And, the principal — once every one or two weeks I’ll go and just talk to him for an hour. I think if I had gone to any other school, I would not be this passionate about learning and I would not have felt like I could reach my goals as much as I do here, because I have so much support in whatever I want to do from my friends, teachers and administration.

We have a house system, kind of like Harry Potter. We have seven houses. We have house points. We have lip-syncing competitions, a paper airplane competition, sixth grade girls’ arm wrestling — literally anything you can think of. Every year we vary it a little bit.

What do you think the teacher’s role should be in students’ lives?

I think the teacher’s role is to engage the student and find what makes the student interested in the subject. It’s about finding passion, and I think this school does a really good job of that — allowing you to really search out what you want to do and find your passion. They don’t care if that’s in academics or art or sports. If you can’t find something that you’re actually interested in, you’re going to be living a life of lack, just going by. It’s the same with how I think the public school system really fails with standardized testing. You’re just learning to take a test. You’re not learning to actually be happy.

What do you plan to do after you graduate from high school?

I want to go to Georgetown; that is my number one school I’m looking at. I visited in like fifth grade. We were just in D.C. to visit friends, and we ended up on the campus. That’s what actually sparked my interest. I want to be in a city. I want to go into the medical field, and I want to work in international health. My career goal is to work for the World Health Organization. Both my parents are in the medical field. My dad’s a physician, and my mom was an ER nurse.

What do you think can be done to close the educational equity gap in the United States?

I definitely know that the solution is not the voucher system. I am very against that. I think that really it’s just having enough dedicated teachers. I don’t think there’s an immediate solution, but I think teachers should be paid more fairly for the work that they do because they are some of the most important people in everybody’s life. I think it’s so important to value them. I know in some places, like Scandinavia, you can see the difference. Teachers are so much more highly valued, and in the U.S., it’s just not like that.

Also, start kids reading at a very young age. That was one thing for me; I started reading when I was like three years old. I read every day, and I think that is probably the single most important reason why I love education so much and I am doing really well in education. I think people don’t really value reading and books as much as they used to and that is a big problem. If we want to have people interested in and invested in their education, they need to like it. It gives you such a wider worldview.

Emilia Olson was interviewed on 1/27/17. Student interviews were carried out during the 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. Posted grade levels are the grade the students were in when they were interviewed.

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