Technology program holds promise for students

Building a high school in the rural reaches of northern Beaufort County didn't make much sense from a student numbers perspective, so school district officials looked for ways to justify its construction in the face of mounting opposition.

The high school's original enrollment capacity of 1,500 was pared to 650, but even then the likelihood of filling it with students from the expected attendance zone was small.

That's when officials came up with Whale Branch Early College High School, a "magnet" school whose aim was to help students get a two-year associate's degree or program certificate while attending high school. Never mind that other high schools already offered similar dual-enrollment options.

Whale Branch also has a heavy emphasis on technology. Students received laptop computers. A technology center, touted as the first of its kind in the United States, was put in place thanks in part to a $100,000 grant from RM Education, a firm with similar centers in Australia and England.

Finishing its second year of operation, the school is turning out some graduates with associate's degrees, and that's good. But now district officials are talking about replicating Whale Branch's technology and intensive guidance program at other area high schools.

If that's done, what would draw students from across the county to Whale Branch? The school's 45-day enrollment count this school year was 516, with 58 from outside its attendance zone, according to the district. What happens to the justification for going ahead with its construction despite declining student enrollments in that part of the county?

And with only two years of operation under Whale Branch's belt, are we sure this is the way to go? Certainly, we've seen other programs touted as the next best thing to improve graduation rates and get students involved in post-secondary education.

But short-term results don't seem to stand in the way of new projects. The board has approved a$5.6 million technology initiative as part of its 2012-2013 budget. About $1.8 million of that would come from its operating budget. Most of the money would come from federal Title 1 funding at schools where students meet income tests.

The district offers some evidence a science and technology emphasis can help. It says it is tracking the number of students who meet the S.C. Commission on Higher Education's requirements for college admission. At Bluffton and Beaufort high schools, 30 percent of seniors aren't meeting these requirements. At Battery Creek High School, it's 25 percent. At Hilton Head Island High School, it's 23 percent. But at Whale Branch, it's 18 percent.

This technology push and emphasis on technical college courses might be an answer to improving those statistics and getting our students ready for what comes next.

Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said the district also would continue tracking on-time graduation rates and enrollment in college-level and advanced courses

Still, forgive us our skepticism; our experience is that we'll hear about the next idea and the next idea before we find out how the last idea turned out.

At some point, the district is going to have to start producing long-term results and not just new programs.