As the scientific research teacher at Islands High School in Savannah, Megan Heberle makes sure her students graduate with the ability to sort out information, apply critical thinking skills and solve complex problems – tools essential for their success at the next academic level.
But it's what she is doing above and beyond her job description that may be having the greatest impact on their futures.
It started seven years ago when Heberle began asking her students about their college plans.
“I kept hearing things like 'Oh, I'm just going to Georgia Southern or I'm just applying to UGA," she said. “Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against in-state schools. What bothered me was that one little word - just.
“When I asked what other schools they had considered, I realized most weren't looking past the familiar, many of them assuming they had no choice but to stay in state," she said.
The irony wasn't lost on Heberle.
“Here I was, teaching my students to research and problem-solve when it hit me that many of them were making one of the most important decisions of their lives based on assumptions."
Heberle set out to change that dynamic by creating opportunities for her college-bound students to explore possibilities beyond their own back yards.
“Many of my students were born and raised here," she said. “Some of them haven't been out of the state, so it's only natural they would gravitate to the familiar. But there are so many considerations that should go into finding the right school. It's not a one-size-fits-all.
“They needed to learn what else was out there."
She began by requesting paper information packets from different colleges around the country, putting them in folders along one wall in her classroom for students to check out and take home. Her students loved it, but she soon ran into a snag.
“More and more schools stopped printing those big packets, instead directing students to their websites," she said. “That's just not the same. You can't as easily take a website home, look through it and share it with your parents."
So Heberle began incorporating an element of college research into her lesson plans.
“Now, every Monday I show a Power Point presentation that focuses on a different state, highlighting that state's higher education opportunities. I focus on about five schools, taking them on a photo tour of dorms, classrooms, dining facilities. We talk about each school's academic strengths and what student life is like. I also include each school's pertinent stats – acceptance rates, average SAT scores, GPA requirements, scholarship possibilities and graduation rates.
“We look at large state universities and smaller schools. We talk about what their comfort level might be in a big school versus small. Could they sit in a lecture hall with 700 other students and pay attention or would they feel lost? Would they need a more intimate classroom setting with greater access to the professor?
“These are the kinds of things that tend to get overlooked."
Creating an in-depth look at five different schools each week requires a lot of preparation, but Heberle insists the rewards more than make up for the extra work.
“The kids love it," she said. “They know they aren't going to be tested on this, but they're paying attention and taking notes. They're making lists of their favorites and talking about it with their friends. They're getting online and doing more research on the schools they're most interested in.
“They're applying to more schools and learning they have more options than they ever dreamed."
Indeed, a map of the United States in Heberle's classroom is covered with pushpins indicating schools where her students have been accepted. They range from New York to California, from UGA to Texas A&M.
Heberle also tries to address one of the biggest issues for students and their parents - paying for college.
“My classes are designed primarily for high-achieving college-bound students taking multiple advanced placement courses" she said. “Still, way too many of them thought they had to stay in Georgia, where they could take advantage of the state-funded H.O.P.E scholarship. Many are shocked to learn they may qualify for scholarships at out-of-state schools that equal or exceed what H.O.P.E. might have provided."
Heberle pointed to a student who was convinced that going anywhere outside of Georgia would be cost-prohibitive.
“I knew this young man was very social, wanted to stay in the South and was leaning toward a larger school," she said. “Having taught him since freshman year, I also knew he had the personality and self-discipline to thrive in that atmosphere.
“He was very interested in environmental engineering, so I had him research LSU, which has one of the top programs in the country. He and his mom went to visit the campus and he fell in love with everything about it. He applied, still convinced it would be too expensive.
“He was accepted into the honors program and was offered more in scholarship money than H.O.P.E. They also offered him in-state tuition. It ended up being cheaper for him to go to LSU than to UGA."
While he had already worked out a way to pay for his college through Army R.O.T.C., senior A.J. Adams - Island's STAR student – originally assumed he would go to Georgia Southern or UGA for his pre-med biology degree and follow that with medical school at Mercer in Macon, staying in-state all the way.
“Ms. Heberle really expanded my thinking," he said. “I ended up applying to 12 schools, including Cornell, Vanderbilt, Emory, Stanford and all the military academies."
After a visit to Duke University, Adams knew he'd found his home. He applied for early decision, one of the fastest but most difficult routes to acceptance.
“A student can apply to only one college for early decision," Heberle explained. “It's essentially telling that school that it is your unequivocal first choice and promising that, if accepted, you will withdraw any other applications."
Not only did A.J. win early acceptance to Duke, he earned a full-ride scholarship.
This might never have happened without the seed Heberle planted nearly four years ago, said Holly Adams, A.J.'s mom.
“Ms. Heberle goes beyond being a teacher and really begins to help students on their journey toward the right college during their freshman year," she said. “She has a room full of college information so the students can access it easily and at their leisure."
But it's not just about choosing a school.
“She works to help them schedule their classes each year based on their interests and desire for academic rigor," she said. “She helps them learn how to ready themselves for college essay writing and SAT/ACT testing.
“She really arms them with everything they need to make the best choices."
Junior Kate Bossler agreed. The Governor's Honors semi-finalist wants to major in biology, concentrating on virology or pathology.
“I'd love to eventually work for the CDC," she said.
But athletics are also important to Bossler, who plays on Islands' volleyball and tennis teams.
“Ms. Heberle has really helped me discover the schools that check all my boxes."
For Heberle, there's nothing more satisfying than urging her chicks out of the nest and seeing them fly far and wide.
“The best – and cheapest time – to experience a different part of the country or a big city is when you're a student living in a dorm," she said.
“I tell them to go out and see the world while you can. You can always come home."