| By Billy Davis
South Panola High School faculty members doled out test results and chocolate chip cookies to more than 200 students and their parents at a Tuesday evening academic event.
High school principal Dr. Gearl Loden estimated a crowd of 250 gathered in the high school cafeteria to receive results of the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), a national standardized test.
SP students in grades 9, 10, and 11 took the PSAT November of last year, part of the high school’s quest to groom a National Merit semi-finalist.
While the PSAT is a qualifier for a semi-finalist, Loden told parents Tuesday the exam also gives parents, students and school administrators a better understanding of students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Although the PSAT is a challenging exam, the principal said, it also works as an indicator for students’ scoring on the ACT, the college entry exam.
"There is a lot of (scholarship) money for students who score high, and parents and students should be aware of that potential," Loden said.
Loden also urged parents to encourage their children to take challenging pre-college courses instead of opting for easier school subjects.
South Panola offers a variety of advanced and advanced placement courses in math, English, biology, history and other subjects.
"I’m not knocking co-op, but too many of our students are taking co-op and an easy math and getting out of school after a half-day," Loden told the assembled crowd.
High school counselor Shauna Myers, who helped the crowd read the test scores, also encouraged parents to push their students academically.
"We want them taking accelerated classes," Myers said. "We want them to graduate equipped to take that next step in a college classroom."
After the event, Loden said he was grateful that parents seemed to hear his plea about the challenging classes.
"The parents were asking for recommendations for their kids to take," Loden told The Panolian. "They asked some really good questions, and you could tell they were really into it."
South Panola High is a Level 3 public school, which ranks as "excellent" in the state department of education’s 1 to 5 classification system.
South Panola school board leaders are quietly pushing for better academics at the high school and across the school district, a plan that led to Loden’s hiring this summer and his own push for improved academics.
The school district’s goals include raising its schools to Level 4 status and, at the high school, achieving a 90-percent graduation rate.
At Tuesday night’s event, South Panola parent Larry Shearon said he appreciates Loden’s apparent focus on academics.
"The Tigers are good at football, but I’m glad they’re pushing academics, too," Shearon said. "We’ve graduated some pro football players, and now maybe we can graduate some scholars, too."
Shearon attended the event with daughter Briana, a South Panola 10th grader, who said she plans to attend pharmacy school at Ole Miss.
The sophomore scored a 157 on the PSAT, which is above the average scores for both 10th and 11th graders.
The average national score for 11th graders is 144, Loden told the crowd.
The highest score came from an 11th grader who scored 187, Loden had earlier told The Panolian.
South Panola sophomore Bynithia Cole picked up her test results along with her mother, Cynthia Cole.
The 10th grader, who wants to attend Mississippi State, scored a 126 on the PSAT, her test results showed.
"I want her to do her best and excel at whatever she plans to do," the mother said. "I want her to be the best she can be in life."
Echoing Loden’s comments Tuesday night, South Panola Superintendent Dr. Keith Shaffer said the PSAT gave parents an "early check" on their child’s progress.
Shaffer said high schoolers and their parents will gradually see teachers "tighten the screws" to make college prep courses more challenging.