Lowcountry Tech Academy in downtown Charleston earning rave reviews from students since opening in January
Krislynn Bland never thought her art classes were interesting, so she's been surprised that she liked graphic design so much.
“It's not boring at all,” the North Charleston High freshman said. “I like all the hands-on projects.”
She has created wearable buttons, packaging labels for soda cans, and greeting cards since her class started in late January. Bland's teacher, Elizabeth Tonelli, uses the assignments to expose students to different aspects of a graphic designer's career and get them hooked on learning.
“They have an end product to see how they use art in a practical way,” she said.
Relevance and real-world application are key components of courses in Charleston County's newest program, Lowcountry Tech Academy. Its goal is to prepare students for higher education or a career in 21st century job fields.
“The priority is to make opportunities for students, whether introducing them to a new career or getting them an internship or doing hands-on projects,” said Sarah Earle, the program's director. “That's really what it's here for.”
The program opened in the renovated former Rivers Middle School building downtown. It shares space with the Charleston Charter School for Math & Science, but the school and academy operate separately. They've talked about the possibility of including the charter school students in academy classes, but there haven't been definite plans to make that happen yet.
Although the use of the King Street building has been a controversial issue in recent years, that conflict isn't on the minds of students attending Lowcountry Tech. Many didn't know about the program until Earle recruited them for it, and they said they're excited to be there.
“A lot of students are going to want to come here,” said North Charleston High freshmen Shampayne Kirkland. “It's real fun. We get to do stuff we want to do, and ... you get to be creative.”
Classes started at Lowcountry Tech in late January. More than 120 students from Burke, North Charleston High and Military Magnet take a bus to and from the academy during their regular school day for classes in networking, keyboarding/computer applications, and graphic communications.
The mid-year start meant many students' schedules already were set when the academy opened, so some of the building's classrooms aren't used during the day. But that will change this fall, Earle said. She has been promoting the academy and working with schools to ensure that students' schedules will enable them to attend. It might have a waiting list, she said.
“Our goal for the fall is 350 (students), and I have no doubt we're going to meet that,” she said. “It's a small space, but every corner of the building will be used next year.”
The academy is open to students across the county, but if demand exceeds space, the first priority would go to students at Burke and West Ashley high schools.
The academy will offer classes in graphic design, networking, cyber security, marketing and entrepreneurship, green energy and construction, and keyboarding this fall. The keyboarding class will be open to middle school students to expose them to the program, but it's not a focus area of the academy.
“We're still solidifying and finalizing to make sure everything that goes in here is chosen well,” she said.
Earle has been working with SPAWAR and the state Department of Education to create a cybersuite, which would be a lab where students take cybersecurity classes. They are creating the curriculum, and the goal is to provide the class virtually to students across the county and state, she said.
For its green energy and construction program, Earle is exploring the possibility of students building a solar- and wind-powered house. Graphic design students might do the interior décor and networking students could handle the wiring, she said.
“That's just the beginning,” Earle said. “What's exciting now is that the students really enjoy being here.”
Neal Hart, a junior at Military Magnet, agreed. He's taking a networking course at the academy, and he said he sometimes learns more there than he does in his other classes.
“I do like what they have, and I hope they get a whole lot more,” he said. “If I could choose this as my school, I would.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.