Leaders of Beaufort County's three largest education institutions said Friday they are cooperating to provide opportunities for Lowcountry students, despite leaner budgets.
Though they have separate missions, the interests of the Beaufort County School District, Technical College of the Lowcountry and University of South Carolina Beaufort frequently mesh.
The school district prepares students to pursue higher education, often at TCL or USCB, and some TCL students seek further education at USCB. And some USCB students graduate with a degree in early childhood education and return to teach for the school district.
"Education is a continuum," said USCB chancellor Jane Upshaw during the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's "The State of Education" forum Friday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Beaufort.
Upshaw, district superintendent Valerie Truesdale and TCL president Thomas Leitzel spoke of their institutions' challenges and successes, from educating 4-year-olds to housing college students.
Truesdale presented data from state and national tests to illustrate progress by students in early-childhood programs through high school. She conceded that academic performance is not where it needs to be but said she is proud of recent improvements.
"We are going in the right direction," she said.
Truesdale touted improvement in early-childhood programs that serve students at risk of failing, whose skills are below expected levels. She said 78 percent of students in 4-year-old pre-kindergarten mastered early childhood standards last school year, compared to 63 percent in 2008-09.
"Four-year-old kindergarten matters," she said.
Truesdale also praised Whale Branch Early College High School, which opened in August in Seabrook. Through a partnership with TCL, students can earn credits toward an associate degree or certificate while still in high school.
She said the building also serves the community after school hours by giving space to other groups, such as Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, and for adult education.
"That whole community is being transformed," she said.
TCL is one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the nation and the fastest-growing technical college in South Carolina, Leitzel said. Nearly 2,800 students are enrolled in its credit programs, with many more residents taking non-credit enrichment classes.
However, Leitzel said state support for the school has declined and the college is planning for continued funding cuts. He said the college has accommodated growth without an appreciable increase in staff, and most newly hired faculty work part-time.
Leitzel praised the college's programs in industrial technologies, funded in part by a Walmart Foundation grant. Students have studied alternative energy sources and harnessed tidal, wind and solar power.
The university offered new programs in 2010, including sociology, computational science and the studio art program on the historic Beaufort campus, Upshaw said. Additions to improve the art program include a ceramics lab, a graphic design lab and a printmaking press.
Upshaw said the university has made extensive renovations at the Beaufort campus, where it eventually plans to provide student housing. The university is discussing buying property that would allow it to house about 17 students in Beaufort next fall, she said.
"We hope to go from no residential students to about 200 residential students, but we can't do that by going from zero to 200," she said. "We will have to do that incrementally."