Education remains key to vibrant local ecomomy

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By Reece Murphy

Reece Murphy
Education forms the basis of a fulfilled life and the ongoing success of a community.
This was the main  message Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce’s Annual State of Education Breakfast.
The breakfast drew about 75 chamber members and local government and education leaders to the multi-purpose room inside the  University of South Carolina Lancaster’s Bradley Arts and Sciences Building.
“We want to keep a focus on education,” Comporium CEO Glenn McFadden said on why the company sponsors the event. “The future of our country, of our community, depends on education. A good, healthy education ensures the community will be vibrant for years to come.”
The speakers for Tuesday’s breakfast included Lancaster resident and state First Steps Executive Director Susan DeVenny, former Lancaster County educator and S.C. Board of Education incoming chairman David Blackmon and University of South Carolina Assistant Vice Provost for Extended University Dr. Sally Boyd.
DeVenny’s presented data illustrating the importance of starting a child on a path toward education soon after birth.
DeVenny said business leaders should care about early childhood development and education because business understands the ability to compete in an increasingly global world requires development of talent, knowledge, skills and behaviors.
“Achievement begins at birth,” DeVenny said. “By age 4, 90 percent of a child’s potential is in place. Most of us in business focus on K-12 education,” she said. “But early education is important because most of the child’s brain development occurs before a child reaches the age of 5.”
Children who have parents who talk to them, cuddle them and play with them at an early age have a firm foundation for future learning, she said.
DeVenny said the chief barrier to educational achievement is poverty, which affects children’s development from a lack of such basic needs as good health and nutrition, nurturing and parental participation.
She said First Steps’ strategies include partnering with families and the business, health, education and faith communities to focus on children’s health, strengthening parents and families and providing quality child care, pre-K education programs and programs that help children transition to school.
Those strategies have a proven positive effect on young students’ academic performance, as well as financial rewards, she added. For every dollar spent, pre-school home visitations produced a return of $1.85, while preschool education produces a $2.87 return.
“Employable, tax-paying citizens are critical to a vital economy,” she said.
Beyond the classroom
Blackmon kicked off his talk on the necessity of public education and the public’s well-being by saying most everyone agrees that learning is not restricted to the classroom. He read an excerpt  from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison.
“’Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty,’” he said.
Blackmon said the S.C. Board of Education tries to do that as charged in the state’s 1895 Constitution by establishing policies for public education.
According to Blackmon, South Carolina’s public schools serve about 700,000 students through 82 school districts. Of the state’s $23.1 billion expenditures, $7.8 billion, or 34 percent, was spent on education from public schools to public universities, he said.
Twenty-three percent of South Carolina’s 4.7 million people are under the age of 18.
Blackmon said South Carolina ranks 36th among states in its financial support of public schools, with only 13 percent of the state’s school districts spending above the national average of $11,665 per-student.
Blackmon said the largest challenge facing education in South Carolina is closing the achievement gap between minority students and white students and the “equally dangerous gap between our students and industrial competitors” in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Finland and China.
‘They are being prepared for $12 an hour jobs and not $40 and $50 positions,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon said a lack of academic focus among American youth is a significant barrier. He cited studies showing  the number of young people who read a newspaper daily has fallen from 42 percent to 23 percent in just 10 years.
American youth spend an average of 4.5 hours daily watching TV, 2.5 hours daily listening to music and more than an hour a day on a computer or playing video games – and only an average of 38 minutes a day reading print, he said.
Poverty is another barrier to education, he said, citing alarming statistics such as “a study by the Anne E. Casey Foundation showing how 43 percent of South Carolina’s students are covered by Medicaid and how 26 percent of the state’s children living in poverty.”
Successful education, he said, involves everyone.
“We each have a vested interest in the success of our young people as they strive to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes which lead to successful employment and effective citizenship,” Blackmon added.
Another chance for a college degree
Boyd spoke to chamber members about USC’s Back to Carolina degree completion program.
The online program offers students who have not completed their degree the chance to do so.
To earn their bachelor of arts degrees, students must choose three from general areas of studies, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, English and history. At the end of the course, students take a “capstone” course to blend the three areas into the one degree.
Boyd said about half of the students enrolled in Palmetto Programs are students at USCL. The first student to graduate from the online studies program was a USCL graduate.
Boyd said there are 37 students enrolled in the Back to Carolina program. About 60 percent of the students are females, 40 percent males, most of whom are in their 40s, with an average GPA of 2.3.
To qualify, students
must be at least 25 years old, have completed 60 credit hours of undergraduate study and have had a GPA of 2.0.
“(USC President Harris) Pastides said BTC is for everybody,” Boyd said. “It was a dream for those who started at USC, who wanted to graduate, but it is now open for everybody.”

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151.