Beaufort County schools will lose what principals call a source of well-prepared teachers when the last class of students in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of South Carolina Beaufort graduates in April.
The elementary teacher certification program, geared toward professionals in search of a career change, is a victim of budget cuts, said Les Sternberg, dean of the University of South Carolina College of Education.
"We had to make some very, very hard decisions, and, unfortunately, that was one of the programs that did not survive," he said.
The MAT program, directed by the graduate school and College of Education at USC's main branch in Columbia, has been in Beaufort County about 15 years, program director Betty Garren said.
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The program has produced nearly 200 graduates, about 85 to 90 percent of whom were hired by the Beaufort County School District, she added.
"This is one pipeline that we will miss," said Donald Gruel, principal of Mossy Oaks Elementary School, who has two graduates of the program teaching in his school.
The accelerated MAT program is for students who already have a bachelor's degree in another discipline. It can be completed in 15 to 18 months and will still be offered at the USC campus in Columbia, Sternberg said.
Jackie Rosswurm, county school district human resources chief, said she is disappointed the program has been canceled because it produced successful teachers, most of whom already lived in Beaufort County. Although Rosswurm said the district can recruit qualified teachers without the program, she hopes to speak with USC about other ways to offer a similar program locally.
Beaufort County principals are sad to see the program go.
"We've had great results with these folks," said Kathy Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary in Bluffton. "They are sought after when we're looking to hire new teachers."
Corley said the MAT students typically are older than recent college graduates, have more life experience and have developed skills in other careers they can bring to the classroom. Most have experience with children, often their own.
Corley said one of her school's finest teachers, Leah Washington, is a graduate of the program. Washington spent four years in the U.S. Army, earned a culinary degree and worked in bakeries before she began at Red Cedar in 2009.
Washington said the MAT program helped her achieve her dream of becoming a teacher without having to spend time and money earning a second bachelor's degree. The program is convenient for students with families and other commitments, she said.
As a first-year teacher, Washington said her perspective was different than that of many recent graduates. She learned discipline in the military and management skills through her culinary career, which were useful in the classroom. The mother of two also relates to her students' parents.
"You know what the struggles are at home," she said. "It makes you empathetic."
The MAT program also places its students in Beaufort County schools for observations and internships before they graduate. This semester, 22 students are assigned to nine county elementary schools.
Beaufort County principals are eager to have MAT interns in their schools because they can see potential employees in action in actual classroom settings, Garren said.
Mary Ellen Parks, principal of Shell Point Elementary School, said she has been impressed with the interns. She had three in her building in the fall.
"I would hire each and every one of them if I could because they are so well-prepared," she said.
Eliminating the MAT program at USCB will be a loss for the school system, Parks said.
"It's going to make it more difficult for people to get that degree," she said. "I just think it's a shame for the kids, for the children."
Sternberg said the program cut is the result of declining state support for higher education.
During the past three years, the amount of state funding USCB receives has been cut in half, according to the university's website.
USCB's state appropriation is the lowest of any baccalaureate institution in the state, with 6 cents of every dollar in the university's 2010-11 budget provided by the state. Lynn McGee, vice chancellor for university advancement, said the school has been told it should not expect to receive the full amount budgeted this year.
The MAT program costs USCB about $125,000 per year in coordinating costs, including the salary and benefits for the program's employees, McGee said. She said USCB also provided supplies, technology, classroom space, marketing materials and other support for the program
Sternberg said USC-Columbia also paid some of the program's costs, such as administrative expenses and travel costs for faculty in Columbia who supported the Beaufort program.
He said the decision to discontinue the program in Beaufort was purely financial, adding the program had been successful.
"It's not that we didn't see a need there," he said. "It just became a matter of, 'Do I cut off my pinkie, or do I cut off my thumb? What do I do?' "