The Beaufort County School District must decide in the coming month whether to approve the budget for the Beaufort-Jasper Academy of Career Excellence. To help them make the decision, everyone is looking to the school's success -- or lack of it.
Over the past several years, only about one of every four Beaufort County students who completed ACE's program has landed a job after graduation, according to statistics provided by the district.
As the district plans to expand career and technical education within its own schools -- programs that would overlap many of those offered at ACE -- several board members think Beaufort County schools could do the job better than ACE.
"I definitely am leaning toward the idea that we could provide this type of education better," Beaufort County board member Geri Kinton said recently. This belief was echoed by several other board members, including JoAnn Orischak, Mary Cordray and Paul Roth.
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ACE was created in 1977 as a partnership between the Beaufort and Jasper school districts. The school offers 16 career and technology education programs -- or CATE in educator's shorthand -- including agriculture, hospitality, construction and automotive technology.
Board members and district officials agree that vocational education is crucial in today's economy, especially for students who are not going to college. However, they are concerned about ACE's effectiveness.
From the 2009-10 school year through the 2011-12 year, 778 students from Beaufort County schools have been enrolled at ACE, according to CATE coordinator Ralph Lataille. Of those students, 183, or 23 percent, completed their program.
Of those "completers," 72 earned a national certification in their field and even fewer -- 48 students, or 26 percent -- were employed in a career related to their certification, Lataille said.
This compares to an average placement rate of almost 97 percent in 2013 for the state's other career centers, according to state Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara. Of the 41 similar career centers in the state, 33 operate within a single district and nine are multi-district centers like ACE, he said.
"When we got the results about students who finished with these skills and their placement in related careers, I thought they were really low," school board chairman Bill Evans said. He acknowledged that some of these students choose to attend college or pursue another career field, but said the numbers are still too low.
"I know industry certification is a big part of this, and another big part is the environment," he added.
About two-thirds of the programs at ACE carry industry certification, meaning students have the opportunity to graduate with a license or credential in the field. Teppara said earning an industry credential is key for students seeking to enter the work force in a good position and relatively quickly.
However, many upgrades to the facility and equipment at ACE are needed before the other programs can gain certification, superintendent Jeff Moss said.
Those upgrades would cost about $10 million and be split between the two counties, he said. The two counties already pay $3.5 million for ACE's annual operating costs. Beaufort County's share is about $2.5 million; Jasper County's slightly more than $1 million.
ACE director Dandi Daniels said the building and equipment must be improved in order for the programs and students to become certified. She said the school has also brought on a new staff member to help place students in jobs.
ACE board member Tedd Moyd of Jasper County agrees that the upgrades are crucial.
"How can our students compete if they don't leave the school with the certification because the school didn't get the necessary credential for that program?" Moyd asked.
Some Beaufort board members believe the money spent on ACE could be put to better use by expanding the district's own CATE programs.
"We could turn around and build CATE education programs in our own district more efficiently and effectively for our students in our county," said Jim Beckert, a member of the Beaufort County school board and the ACE board.
"I may anger some people, but my job is to have the best interest of Beaufort County students and to be mindful of our taxpayers in Beaufort County," Beckert said.
In the next two years, the district plans to add programs such as agriculture, automotive technology, health sciences and manufacturing at Battery Creek High School and at a new high school planned for Bluffton.
Beaufort County schools also will have programs such as information technology, finance and business management at a majority of high schools, Moss said.
"This coming school year or the next after that, we would be in a position to offer everything a student could want in a 50-mile radius and all with industry credentialing," he said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.