Beaufort News

A new charter school hopes to raise the bar on education in Jasper County

A new charter school in Jasper County could offer parents more than just another alternative to the area’s failing public schools, a group of local educators and professionals say.

The proposed Polaris Tech, which has filed letters of intent with the South Carolina Public Charter School District, would offer a hands-on, project-oriented curriculum to help train middle- and high-school students for careers in the area’s growing industries, such as aviation and the future Jasper Ocean Terminal, steering committee members said this week.

The new port, though about 10 years away from completion, has the potential to create 1 million new jobs. Retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton — a Ridgeland native and member of the steering committee — wants to make sure they go to students in Jasper County first. But that’s going to require big changes in Jasper County’s current schools, and new options like Polaris Tech, Newton says.

“We really think we can move the bar a bit with teaching these youngsters,” said Newton, who graduated from the old Jasper County High School and went on to become the first black pilot in the USAF Thunderbirds.

Only a tenth of Jasper County 3rd-8th graders met or exceeded expectations in 2015-16 math and English assessments.

Polaris Tech would be the second state charter school in Jasper County, joining five-year-old Royal Live Oaks Academy in Hardeeville. The area has two other state charter schools, Bridges Preparatory School and Lowcountry Montessori in Beaufort, and a fourth charter school, Riverview, that belongs to the Beaufort County School District.

If approved, Polaris Tech would open in 2018-19 with about 125 students in grades six through 10. A location has not been determined.

Newton likened the proposed curriculum to that of NEXT High School in Greenville, a project- and entrepreneurship-based school where students spend most of their time working with teacher-mentors or in labs and corporate offices rather than in lectures.

NEXT, which opened in 2014, expanded this school year with a second campus in Salem.

Plans for Polaris Tech will also depend on feedback from parents, who have a few chances this month to get information about the new school.

“If parents are not interested in this option, it will come to a screeching halt,” Newton said. “We want to develop a school because we see a need and because parents see a need, and this is a solution they want to participate in.”

In Jasper County, the need for better educational opportunities is undeniable.

In 2015-16, only about 10 percent of the Jasper County School District’s students in third through eighth grades met expectations in the South Carolina College-and Career-Ready Assessments in English and math, compared to about 45 percent in the Beaufort County School District.

If parents are not interested in this option, it will come to a screeching halt.”

Lloyd “Fig” Newton, Polaris Tech steering committee member

The history of academic under-performance is well documented in the Jasper area. It’s one of eight counties that compose the Corridor of Shame, an impoverished swath of rural South Carolina known for its neglected schools and inability to fund improvements. The counties’ school systems won a lawsuit against the state in 2014, leading to the creation of a new Office of School Transformation this year, but so far, no other tangible impacts.

Former superintendent William Singleton, now a member of the Polaris Tech steering committee, once testified that Jasper County’s old schools were infested with snakes and termites, prone to leaks and hampered by raw sewage emergencies and mold. Teachers were known to bring roadkill into the classroom to help teach biology because they had no other supplies, Singleton said during the trial.

More recently, the Jasper County School District has been hit with an ongoing federal investigation into its operations and the sudden resignation last December of its 5-year superintendent, Vashti Washington.

Newton says he has discussed the proposed charter school with new superintendent Donald Andrews and hopes the administrations can work together. Andrews was not available for comment Monday.

“This certainly wouldn’t fix the entire educational system for Jasper County,” Newton said. “We know that. That’s not our intent. Our real intent is, how can we have an impact here?”

The Polaris Tech steering committee includes a mix of professionals in education and other backgrounds, including 2012 board chair of United Way of the Lowcountry Sandra Chavez, University of South Carolina literacy professor Renarta Tompkins and business instructor John Lundin, and Kim Statler, former executive director of the Technical College of the Lowcountry Foundation.

The group is holding two upcoming informational sessions, at which Newton will be the keynote speaker. They are:

▪  6 p.m. Dec. 12 at Agape Family Life Center, 5855 S. Okatie Hwy., Hardeeville

▪  6 p.m. Dec. 13 at Pratt Memorial Library, 451A Wilson St., Ridgeland

This article was updated Dec. 7 to correct the title of Sandra Chavez. She is a former board chair of United Way of the Lowcountry.