ACE to cut teachers, add online classes and STEM program

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMarch 21, 2013 

Staff cuts, virtual courses and a new progam focused on science are on tap for the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence.

The school's board meets at 5 p.m. at the school, 80 Lowcountry Drive in Ridgeland, to discuss adding a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program.

The school's director, Deonia Simmons, said ACE also plans to cut staff and revamp its curriculum to feature more online coursework.

Though many students have graduated and either go on to college, enlist in the military or enter the workforce, Simmons said, a low percentage successfully pass the state's high school exit exams required to receive a diploma. Students have also perennially performed poorly on end-of-course exams, Simmons said.

End-of-course exams are given at the end of hallmark courses, such as algebra, English and U.S. History, and count for 20 percent of a student's grade. High school exit exams, or the High School Assessment Program, are required for a public high school diploma and are a federally mandated testing program to measure progress. Students who do not pass can take the tests again.

Less than 45 percent of ACE students passed the both the HSAP English and math exams in 2012, Simmons said. That's compared to more than 81 percent of students who passed districtwide and 80 percent of students statewide, according to S.C. Department of Education data.

Slightly more than 83 percent of ACE students graduated in 2012 compared to an average of more than 95 percent for other career centers across the state, according to its latest state report card.

While most career centers focus solely on career and vocational education, ACE also provides high school students from Beaufort and Jasper counties the opportunity to enroll in academic courses.

"The low passage rates coupled with the fact that many of our academic classes have very low enrollments (some as few as 11 students), substantiates the need to revisit our ... instructional model," Simmons said.

The school recently notified nine math, science, social studies and language arts teachers their positions will be replaced next school year with four teacher-certified "facilitators" who will oversee content-specific classrooms where students take online courses, Simmons said. The teachers can apply for one of the four new positions, he said.

"In an effort to provide our students with what we believe to be a more appropriate instructional model ... we have elected to reduce the number of academic teachers to pursue a more technologically and student-friendly approach to providing academic instruction," Simmons said.

The new curriculum -- Edgenuity (formerly called e2020) -- offers a heavily video-based course program that includes exercises, quizzes and tests. Courses are aligned with Common Core and state standards, and students can use the program independently, with no teacher involvement, or to supplement a teacher-led class, according to the company's website.

It is frequently used to supplement curriculum in summer schools when there are few teachers.

"While I realize that it is not popular to reduce staff, I do not believe that continuing in the same manner is what is most beneficial for our students," Simmons said.

Online courses will enable "high-flyers" -- students who perform well on their own -- to excel without being held back in the classroom by peers who struggle with the material, he argues.

"And, on the flip side, it enables those students who are struggling to slow down and take their time," Simmons said. "Our students live in a society where technology gets their focus better than the traditional teaching model."

The Samuel A. Heyward Career and Technology Center in Columbia also uses the curriculum, which Simmons and members of the ACE School Improvement Council visited.

"Kids were engaged ... and there was no question as to whether it was rigorous or not," Simmons said.

Heyward e2020 curriculum director Loranda Melton directed questions to a district spokeswoman who could not be reached for comment Thursday.

NEW STEM PROGRAM

Simmons said he plans to ask the board tonight to use money saved from cutting teaching positions and the school's fund balance to pay for a $125,000 STEM program to bolster ACE's career and tech programs.

The introductory course would expose students to alternative energy, computer-aided design, animation, forensic science, mobile applications, and research and design, Simmons said.

The aim is to use the STEM courses as a feeder into the school's welding, automotive technology, building construction, graphic design and aesthetics courses -- all of which have low enrollments.

"We're turning kids away from cosmetology because we have so many already and hope to steer them toward high-demand, technical fields" in South Carolina's burgeoning manufacturing industry, Simmons said.

"We want to help develop the workforce of the future, providing one program that exposes our students to pretty much everything we offer, while improving academic instruction in math, science, technology and engineering," he said. "It exposes students to another learning opportunity that's hands-on, project-based and real-world relevant."

Unlike the schools in Beaufort and Jasper counties that are governed by a school board comprised of individuals from one district, ACE has its own Board of Trustees comprised of three members from the Beaufort County Board of Education -- Earl Campbell, Michael Rivers, and Jim Beckert -- and three from the Jasper County Board of Trustees -- Ted Moyd, Randy Horton, and Alina Hamilton-Clark.

The superintendents from both districts serve as ad hoc members of the ACE Board. Beaufort County supplies two-thirds of the school's funding; Jasper County provides the other third.

TEACHER ALLEGES HOSTILE WORKPLACE

ACE social studies teacher Ralph Worrell -- one of the nine teachers whose position will be eliminated -- claims Simmons has created a hostile work environment by openly belittling teachers in front of other employees and refusing to listen to their grievances.

"He is cold and heartless," said Worrell who plans to address the board during its meeting. "It bothers me to see professionals who do such a good job being treated with such disrespect."

Worrell said he plans to retire instead of apply for one of the four new teaching positions or look for another job.

Simmons was not immediately available Thursday afternoon to respond to Worrell's claims.

Simmons replaced Chris Dinkins, who resigned last year after being reprimanded and ordered to participate in an improvement plan following an investigation by the ACE board into financial and personnel issues at the school, prompted by employees' concerns.

Check back with The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet for an update to this story after tonight's meeting and follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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