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Lancaster County business owners and other community stakeholders filled Lancaster Golf Club’s Fairway Room on Tuesday morning, Aug. 27, for the annual State of the Community breakfast.
The annual Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast included two moderated panels of local government and education officials who discussed developments under their purview.
Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman-elect Jodie Plyler said the event fit in with the chamber’s mission to improve the community through advocacy, business, community and member development.
“The reason we’re here today is to allow our members to hear from our local government officials and educators, to hear about their success and their challenges,” Plyler said. “But more importantly, how those developments will affect local businesses.”
Today’s article, featuring responses from local educators, is part one of a two-part series.
This education panel included Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore, University of South Carolina Lancaster Dean Dr. Walt Collins and Sid Valentine, vice president for Industrial and Engineering Technologies at York Technical College
Kicking off the discussion, moderator Rick Jiran, regional manager for Duke Energy, invited panelists to “brag” on their institutions and their recent accomplishments.
Moore said the school year started smoothly. He said among the most important developments was the district’s efforts to make schools more secure with a range of security improvements such as more secure entryways and photo Ids for teachers.
Among the things that made him proudest, Moore said, was the district’s graduation rate and recent student performance on the HSAP, PASS and ACT tests.
“We’re really improving on all those,” Moore said. “We’re really seeing some good news.”
Collins said among the many good things at USCL this year was the start of work on its long-awaited new classroom and faculty office building, Founders Hall, as well as the opening of the USCL Native American Center, which will celebrate its first anniversary in October.
Collins also lauded the University of South Carolina system’s new Palmetto College, which offers online bachelor’s degrees in business, elementary education, human services, nursing and criminal justice.
“One of our proudest moments was the start of the systemwide Palmetto College, and its administrative structure that draws us (regional and main campuses) closer together and helps us with resources,” Collins said.
“Another thing is students in our region will have access to four-year degrees they’ve never had before,” he said.
Valentine said one of the things York Tech was most proud of are the 80 percent placement rate of its graduates and the fact that its programs are focused on the real-world needs of both students and companies such as Comporium, Proctor & Gamble Duracell, Duke Energy and Haile Gold Mine.
“When you look at York Tech, don’t just look at the numbers,” Valentine said. “Look at the jobs they’re (students) going into.
“This goes back to what makes us unique,” he said. “They are students who want to work within 30 miles of where they live, students who want to be in their communities.”
With that, Jiran moved on to the next question and asked the panelists to discuss their concerns – especially those beyond their perennial concerns with funding.
“We’ve heard your proud papa moments,” Jiran said. “Now let’s talk about the things that keep you up at night.”
Valentine said his biggest concern was having enough room to meet the college’s growing need for technological and industrial training. Many classes, he said, require a space up to three times the space needed in a typical classroom.
“Space is always a requirement; we don’t do small things,” Valentine said, going on to say the issue was, unavoidably, one of funding.
“We expect we’re going to do three times more things at three times the rate, but we’re going to have to do it with three times less funding.”
Collins said he was concerned most about estimates that predict a decrease in the number of high school graduates in the Palmetto State in the next six years.
“One of the things we want to focus on is recruiting, so enrollment is going to be a challenge for the next few years,” Collins said. Retainment is another. “We have strong retention and success rates,” he said. “But we need to continue that.”
Moore again said students’ safety was his and the district’s main concern, but the district’s implementation of Common Core Standards is another, a vast effort hampered by the fact that the “the devil’s in the details.”
Funding for ongoing capital improvements at schools throughout the county also figured high on Moore’s list of concerns.
However, growth in Indian Land – even with the opening of a new elementary school next year – is causing its share of heartburn for district officials.
With 1,600 students at Indian Land Elementary School, about 200 more than last year, the new school’s relief might only be temporary. Moore said that’s especially true given that the middle school grows as elementary students move up.
“So when you look at the future for us, we’re going to open a new school, and going to have to consider that again if we keep growing at the same clip,” Moore said.
Jiran then asked how the schools intended to help prepare students to meet the demands of the new workforce.
Moore said the whole goal of Common Core Standards was to do just that, to have students “college ready or career ready.”
A key focus of the district’s effort, Moore said, is reading. Another is partnering with local businesses on various efforts and maintaining the success of Lancaster High School’s Career Center.
Collins said USCL’s focus is on helping prepare students for their futures, from the university’s degree offerings to helping them find both internships and jobs though a job database.
According to Collins, UCSL is one of the only campuses in the USC satellite campus system that offers associate degrees in specific career areas, and with the addition of Palmetto College, it now offers a similar ability with four-year bachelor’s degrees.
“We think that is a step in the right direction in helping students be ready after graduation,” Collins said.
Valentine said York Tech is already trying to meet the area’s needs by the technology and other training it offered.
“What does that do for the community?” Valentine asked. “It pulls jobs in here that bring in other jobs.”
In closing, Jiran asked what the community could expect to see from the three institutions in coming years.
Valentine said York Tech plans to expand its classroom space and create more innovative spaces for high-tech training. The school also plans to add a health and human services aspect to its curriculum and campus.
Collins said USCL would like to see construction of a new entrance on Charlotte Highway (U.S. 521), but most important among future expectations is their shaping.
Since this year the university wrapped up the master plan developed under the administration of former Dean John Catalano, Collins said, it is now time to start the strategic planning process again for USCL’s next master plan.
“At the heart of that is increasing student enrollment and degree offerings – from health and wellness to travel study, we want to make it a campus you want to move to,” Collins said. “We also want to expand our regional recognition through encouraging staff research, staff development and reaching out to the surrounding counties.”
Moore said he doesn’t want the county’s schools to lose what makes them special, a “personal connection” with its students that encourages their success.
He said the district would also continue focusing on its capital plan so that county schools would not only remain able to handle the county’s successful growth, but be a part of that engine of growth while staying focused on students.
“We want to make sure everything we do in this school system is for the students’ success,” Moore said. “Sports, academics, extracurricular activities – parents are looking for the whole package, and we want to meet those needs.”
Coming Wednesday, local government leaders talk about public safety, infrastructure and workforce development.
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151