Education

TCL hopes to take over financially strapped Beaufort-Jasper ACE

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The Technical College of the Lowcountry's success could help county officials salvage another local vocational school, the struggling Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence.

The Beaufort college hopes to take over ACE and capitalize on programs that TCL doesn't already offer, such as welding and culinary arts, TCL president Richard Gough said Wednesday. Despite a substandard job-placement record and revolving door of leaders, ACE can still provide a quality, practical education to students as well as a stream of skilled workers to local, thriving industries, he said.

"This sounds amazingly beneficial to everyone in the area," said Beaufort County Council member Brian Flewelling, who heard the plan during Wednesday's executive committee meeting.

Gough made the same presentation to the Jasper County Council a few weeks ago, according to Jerry Stewart, who is the Beaufort County Council's TCL liaison and executive committee chairman.

After determining how to pay for and carry out the project -- which would cost at least $16 million in the first five years -- TCL would seek approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to offer credit-bearing instruction at a new location.

That process would take at least eight months, Gough said.

"Time is of the essence on this," he said. "I think it's a win-win for the area."

The Beaufort County School District is significantly downsizing ACE over the next two years, aiming to move nearly all of its students to district high schools by 2017.

The school has 475 students and a budget of $3.2 million this year. Two-thirds of the students -- and the money -- come from Beaufort County. The rest is from Jasper County.

A migration of Beaufort County schools will also mean a loss of that funding, which will cripple the already shaky school for the few career and technology education programs left behind, such as barbering, cosmetology and esthetics, according to Gough.

Attempts to reach Jasper County Council chairman Barbara Clark on Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

While TCL would not continue running ACE as a high school, it could offer dual-enrollment programs that would provide students with both high school and college credits. All graduates would receive a license or credential in their field, Gough added.

At ACE, some programs don't offer students licensing or credentials, a drawback that likely contributed to the school's below-average outcomes -- only about one in four students secured a job in their field after graduation, according to statistics the Beaufort County School District presented in 2014.

TCL shines in comparison, with more than 93 percent of its graduates finding jobs or moving on to bigger schools.

ACE's offerings, though, will still benefit students, Gough said. TCL plans to carry on the school's work providing training where it's most needed, such as training to be automotive collision technicians and hotel and restaurant workers.

Gough said he's particularly excited to see TCL provide culinary arts studies.

"Overnight, we would begin to start training in those areas," he said. "There's people in Bluffton and Hilton Head that are screaming for ... hospitality workers, and we could do that immediately."

TCL's plan will depend on several uncertainties, including where it will get the money for about $7.5 million in upgrades the ACE campus needs and about $1.7 million in annual maintenance. The state also would have to address the legislative agreement between Beaufort and Jasper counties that created the school about 40 years ago.

Gough said the school must also find a way to help the small number of Jasper County students who are not strong enough in reading, writing or math to qualify for TCL programs.

Remedial education could help bring some of those students up to speed, though that would come with its own costs, Gough added.

Committee member Stu Rodman said he's long been concerned about those at-risk students who advance through school without gaining education or skills.

"I just think we've got to make this a real priority to take care of those students, and I think this is a great step in that direction," Rodman said. "I support it."

Stewart said he expects the college eventually will ask Beaufort and Jasper counties for resolutions supporting the plan. However, he said, the decision should be up to Jasper County.

"They have more to lose or gain in this process than Beaufort County does," Stewart said, adding that the Beaufort County Council is unlikely to give TCL more than the $2 million it already contributes to the college each year.

"Although I think they're in the right direction, and I think it's a positive for both counties and the region as whole," Stewart said, "if they can't come to a financial agreement, then it just won't work."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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