The Hilton Head Bluffton Branch of the NAACP opposes the Beaufort County school board's decision to rescind its agreement with the Jasper County school board to jointly fund and oversee the operations of the Beaufort Jasper Academy for Career Excellence (ACE). This decision drives a dagger into ACE, leaving the much poorer and racially diverse Jasper County to fend on its own.
The ACE program was established in 1975 through a joint agreement between the Beaufort County and Jasper County school districts to provide technical and vocational education training for high-school age students in fields such as construction, motor vehicle repair, culinary arts and cosmetology. Over the years ACE has provided thousands of young people the opportunity to embark on rewarding careers without having to incur the tuition costs associated with other avenues of advanced education.
Career and technical programs such as ACE have existed in South Carolina for decades (33 currently operate in the state) and all operate as separate entities from their local school systems -- and for good reason. The specialized training and facilities they provide cannot be easily duplicated at individual high schools.
In discontinuing its affiliation with ACE, the Beaufort County school board will attempt to replicate many, but not all, of ACE's technical training programs at several of its high schools. In doing so, it will be the only school system in a major population center in the state outside of Charleston that will not have an independently run career and technical center (CATE) program, such as those that exist in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, Columbia and Myrtle Beach. And this comes at a time when the demand for workers with trade skills provided by ACE will increase substantially with the growing local economy.
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The board's decision to pull out of ACE is disheartening and stems from misleading information about ACE graduation and placement rates. In a prior editorial, The Island Packet endorsed the Beaufort County school board's decision to rescind its ACE agreement, suggesting low graduation and placement rates for Beaufort County students were problems. The editorial noted that the state's other career centers had an average placement rate of 97 percent for the 2012-2013 school year.
We reviewed the 2013 report cards issued by the S.C. Department of Education for all of the state's 33 technical and vocational career centers, including Beaufort Jasper ACE. The report card shows a placement rate of 92.2 percent for all ACE students, which was only slightly lower than the state average of 96.5 percent. Similarly, the 2013 state report card shows that ACE had a graduation rate of 91.8 percent.
Also, The Island Packet and other critics of ACE fail to point out that 72 percent of ACE's students are African-American or Hispanic, which constitutes the fifth highest percentage of minority students among all of the state career centers. ACE also has by far the highest percentage of students with disabilities at state career centers -- 20.7 percent or a total of 83 students. The median career center percentage of students with disabilities is only 9.6 percent.
As to ACE budget expenditures, which some have criticized, serving such a high percentage of students with disabilities can only add to its financial burdens. ACE also needs to upgrade its facilities. The 2013 state report card shows ACE spent $10,525 per pupil, which is high compared to other career centers but certainly not among the highest. The career center in Myrtle Beach spent approximately $24,286 per pupil, even though only 3.3 percent of its students have disabilities. The career center in Marion spent $12,193 per pupil and the center in Conway $11,132. Three career centers (Anderson, Chapin, and Gaffney) did not report per pupil expenditures.
ACE received an overall "below average" grade on its 2013 report card but received "good" ratings in 2011 and 2009. It is not unusual for career centers to receive below average ratings in one year but average, good or excellent ratings in other years. This is not to suggest that spending controls and better oversight of ACE might not be needed, but that is the responsibility of the ACE board -- and three of its six members sit on the Beaufort County school board. Many other career centers are overseen by representatives from multiple school districts so there is no reason why having two school districts oversee ACE should be a problem. We also see no need to alter or amend the original legislation establishing ACE.
Beaufort County's pulling out of ACE is bad policy and would constitute a severe disservice to low-income and minority students in our area and to our community.
Chris Pierce is president of the Hilton Head Bluffton NAACP