South Aiken High alumnus J. Lucas thrilled the school with his impersonation of Michael Jackson on Thursday almost as much as the announcement that students earned $26,000 for passing Advanced Placement exams last spring.

Alvin Pressley, the executive director of High Schools for Aiken County Public Schools, presented the check to Martha Messick, an assistant principal and AP coordinator at South Aiken, during a celebration of the students’ achievement that included performances not only by Lucas, who sang and danced to “Billie Jean,” but also the South Aiken cheerleaders, band and drum line.

Students earned $100 for passing an AP exam with a score of 3, 4 or 5. The National Mathematics and Science Initiative and local businesses and industries provided the money for the awards through a partnership with the school district. Students who earned a score of 3 or higher received college credit.

“The money goes directly to the kids,” Messick said.

South Aiken High, along with North Augusta High, became an AP Academy last school year as part of the school district’s thematic high school program. AP courses are open to every student.

“We have no barriers to taking an AP course,” Messick said. “All the student has to have is the interest and motivation and drive to do the work.”

This school year, 520 of South Aiken’s 1,400 students, about 40 percent, are taking AP courses with a total of 1,000 AP enrollments, including students who take multiple AP classes.

Last school year, 99.5 percent of South Aiken’s students passed their AP classes, Messick said.

“So, even if a student is not successful on the exam, they’re gaining experience from the classroom, and they’re passing the class,” she said. “It looks good on their transcripts. College admissions officials like to see AP classes because they are a national standardized curriculum, and they know the level of rigor those students were engaged in class.”

During its first year as an AP Academy, 78 South Aiken AP students received special recognition from the College Board for their performance on AP exams as follows:

• 49 students were named AP Scholars for earning a score of 3 or higher on three or more exams

• 15 students were named AP Scholars with Honor for earning a score of 3 or higher on four of more exams with an average score of 3.25

• 13 students were named AP Scholars with Distinction for earning a score of 3 or higher on five or more exams with an average score of 3.5

• One student was named a National AP Scholar for earning a score of 4 or higher on eight or more exams with an average score of 4.

Messick said South Aiken’s goals during the first year as an AP Academy were to increase AP enrollment and qualifying scores to earn college credit.

“We did that,” she said. “We more than doubled our enrollment, and we increased our qualifying scores by more than 70. We had 401 qualifying scores total.”

This year’s goals are to provide support for AP social studies students and teachers, and to ensure that South Aiken’s AP enrollment demographics match the school’s demographics, Messick said.

“We’re moving in that direction,” she said. “Our African-American population enrolled in AP courses is around 15 percent this year. When we started, it was under 10 percent.”

Principal Jill Jett said she wants the school’s AP courses to reflect the student population.

“Twenty percent of our population is African-American, and we’re almost there,” she said. “We’re showing people through our efforts and the kids’ performance that we truly do believe that all kids can succeed. All kids can do this, and we believe that every kid can have an opportunity to be successful.”

Jett said the school’s mission statement sums up the AP program’s success: Every Thoroughbred, the school’s mascot, every day. All means all.

“We’re moving barriers,” she said, echoing Messick’s words. “We don’t tell children you can’t take an AP course. We tell them you can take it, and we would like for you to consider it.

“It should be the decision of the child and the parent about what they would like to do. We need to help guide them toward where they want to go in the future, and this is our best way to do it, to open up those doors.”

Lucas, who graduated from South Aiken in 1997, captured the audience, who clapped and sang along, with some of Michael Jackson’s signature moves, including the moonwalk, and vocals. His performance Thursday was his first visit to his alma mater since he graduated.

“It was cool, cool,” he said between taking selfies and pictures with students and staff. “It was nice to come back and see all the kids. They gave me a really nice reception.”

Lucas, who recently returned from a two-week tour of eight cities in Japan, said he was a fan of Michael Jackson as a kid.

“When he passed, he broke my heart,” said Lucas, who will tour in England and China beginning in January. “I was working with some of his people out in Los Angeles, and after he passed, I wanted to keep his music and legacy alive. So I started studying every aspect of Michael Jackson, and I’ve been doing it for seven years.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.

A native of Aiken, Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.