It’s less than two miles between downtown Charleston’s lone neighborhood high school and any one of four colleges.

Four academies

The following are the proposed focus areas for each higher education institution for the University Center at Burke High.

Medical University of South Carolina

Health Professions Academy, which would be a comprehensive medical magnet for students interested in 10 medical fields, such as cardiology, dental sciences, medical laboratory, ophthalmology and nursing.

College of Charleston

Early Childhood and Teacher Development Academy, which would be designed to educate students interested in working in professional careers to focus on the growth and development of children.

The Citadel

Law and Leadership Development Academy, which would expose students to a variety of legal professions and cover topics such as constitutional law, court procedures, crime scene investigation and forensic science.

Trident Tech

Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Academy, which would enable students to explore the fields of manufacturing and engineering.

Source: Charleston County School District

That short distance hasn’t made much of a difference to Burke High, which for years has seen declining enrollment, low test scores and a less than desirable reputation.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a brand-new school (building) surrounded by The Citadel, the Medical University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston and Trident Tech … and the kids are failing and leaving the school,” said state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston. “We could have the best school in the country.”

Ford and state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, decided to arrange a meeting with the college presidents and Charleston County school officials to talk about Burke High.

The result has been a commitment to a new partnership — the University Center at Burke High. Each of the four colleges will help develop courses aligned with its expertise, and high school students will be able to earn high school and college credit.

The end goal is to improve Burke High and ensure its graduates are more prepared for life after high school. They hope that would attract more downtown students to the school.

“The exodus of students both white and African-American off the peninsula is something that we do know has been going on, and it is something we believe we can change with a really viable program,” said School Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

Colleges would benefit from either enrolling or employing better trained and more diverse graduates.

It’s significant and unique that all four presidents have committed to this effort, McGinley said. The colleges’ top leaders each have said they want to do this and make it a model for the city, she said.

Four academies

Gilliard, who worked with Ford to kick-start this project, said the peninsula can’t afford to have its only neighborhood high school surrounded by colleges and still have problems.

The concept for the University Center only has been around a few months, so it’s not clear yet what it ultimately might become. Charleston County school leaders have drafted a concept paper to identify what contributions each school might make, but they haven’t figured out many details or funding.

The University Center would prepare students to either go to work or pursue higher education in the fields they study.

Officials have suggested, for example, MUSC could spearhead a health professions academy that would expose students to and prepare them for careers in the medical field. Students might participate in clinical rotations at hospitals, clinics or pharmacies, and they would have to do 100 hours of service work at specific sites.

Ray Greenberg, president of MUSC, said what makes this partnership different is that it would require a more direct engagement of each higher education institution to develop and deliver curriculum.

MUSC often works with schools on projects and programs, but any instruction is a supplement to what’s already being taught in schools, he said. This would be the university helping create the educational program for high school students, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of experience in K-12 education,” he said. “We’re mostly focused on graduate and professional level education … so it’s a different kind of audience than we’re typically used to delivering content to.”

Like many South Carolina colleges, MUSC has suffered funding cuts in recent years. Taking on more responsibilities will be a challenge, but Greenberg said it is part of its mission to figure out how to take limited resources and use them more broadly.

“We’ll be the beneficiaries in the long run,” he said.

Greenberg said he would welcome other public or private health care providers to be involved in this partnership.

Plans underway

It might take five years until the University Center becomes what organizers envision it could be, and developing it is not a part-time job, McGinley said. She’s looking outside of the district for funding for the project.

“It takes dedicated people to plan this,” she said. “We have to get a point person at each university and a point person in the district who wakes up and says over the next six to 18 months, ‘My job is to get this up and running.’ ”

The district may be able to start components of the University Center, such as offering introductory courses, building awareness and setting up mentors in the first year. Those efforts could grow as time passes, McGinley said.

“It would be an evolution,” she said. “We definitely want to see some action (soon), and I do believe it’s really important that it begin in the middle school.”

Downtown parents have been included in some initial planning meetings, and McGinley plans to broaden that group to include downtown neighborhood presidents.

Burke would continue to be a neighborhood high school that serves any downtown student, but that could change because the school has space to accept more students, she said.

A school’s challenge

Burke High Principal Maurice Cannon said the school needs to do a better job of mirroring the world students live in, and the new University Center partnership should enable it to do that.

He said he’s excited about its possibility, and he looks forward to conversations involving the center.

It will offer high school- and college-level courses. Some Burke High students likely will struggle with more advanced courses; its students have “passed” just six Advanced Placement exams to earn college credit during the past three years. McGinley said the district’s literacy academies are helping struggling readers in lower grades, and a stronger group of students is progressing through the school system.

She sees the University Center as an innovative plan that would be mutually beneficial for the colleges and Burke High, and she hopes it sparks improvement and leads more downtown students to see Burke High as an option.

“I don’t want this to be something in name only, that isn’t going to change the outcomes for children,” she said.