Boeing is chipping in to help train the next generation of engineers in its own backyard.
Under an agreement announced Thursday, the commercial airline manufacturer, which has a large plant in North Charleston, is helping to fund special programs in science, technology, engineering and math at three schools serving the city's Liberty Hill community: North Charleston Elementary, Morningside Middle and North Charleston High.
"I asked them, 'Why would you continue to import talent when you can grow your own?' " said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, chairman of the board of the Charity Foundation. "If you plan to be here for a while, why don't you invest in the people here?"
The education initiative is just one of four parts in a larger community revitalization effort called Transformation: Liberty Hill.
Boeing, the Charleston County School District, the Coastal Community Foundation and the Charity Foundation are partnering with a mission "to transform Liberty Hill into a community of multi-generational and economically stable individuals and families," according to a press release.
Liberty Hill was bought in 1864 by a free black man and his wife, who sold it to four families whose descendants still live there. But the neighborhood is now surrounded in the East Montague area by new development, much of which is unaffordable to those longtime residents, Rivers said.
“We have been passed by," Rivers said, "so we are working to change that.”
The Charity Foundation plans to provide training and career development for adults in Liberty Hill; create "safe, desirable and affordable housing"; and provide financial literacy help.
Under the agreement, Boeing will contribute $150,000 to the STEM project this school year, with the option to extend the program based on results. The school district will contribute $350,000, which a district spokesman said was approved in its 2017-18 budget.
“As you well know, I have been one of the most vocal critics of the school district,” Rivers said, "so I have to also be a champion for them when they do the right thing.”
Three new positions have been created to help run the program: a STEM coordinator, a STEM community engagement specialist and a school-to-career facilitator. Two have been hired and have started work, Rivers said.
“Our vision and our theory is that we don’t want our folk to have to be penalized for where they live, their race, or their income," Rivers said. “It’s called 'public education' for a reason.”
The money will support the use of STEM curricula from Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that provides programs for schools across the country. The program looks different at different grade levels, but the organization’s website describes the elementary-level PLTW Launch program this way:
“PLTW Launch’s 24 interdisciplinary modules bring learning to life. The program empowers students to adopt a design-thinking mindset through compelling activities, projects, and problems that build upon each other and relate to the world around them.”
North Charleston High already has a Project Lead the Way program. Boeing’s donation will support that as well as new Project Lead the Way initiatives that began this school year at North Charleston Elementary and Morningside Middle.
Middle schoolers will use a curriculum called PLTW Gateway to Technology.
Tim Keating, Boeing's senior vice president of government operations, said the company's investment in Liberty Hill will continue to offer STEM education to North Charleston area students, "who, one day, will be STEM-ready and qualified candidates to meet the needs of the growing South Carolina business sector.”
With the agreement signed and workforce development in place, organizers will focus on the next component, affordable housing, Rivers said. The community has more than 240 vacant tracts, he said. About 160 homes are owner-occupied, and another 100 are lived in by non-owners.
"Frankly, that sets Liberty Hill up to be gentrified, and that's what we are concerned about," Rivers said. "So when these schools become the kind of schools we know they will be, people will want to live on Liberty Hill. But they won't be able to afford it, if we don't intervene now."
North Charleston and North Charleston Housing Authority currently have few affordable housing programs, but Rivers said they have shown interest in his group's plans.
"Our vision is to transform Liberty Hill with affordable housing so the people who live here can stay here, in good, decent safe housing," Rivers said.
The plan calls for buying lots to build or renovate with a "Liberty Hill home," a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home with a garage, he said.
"When your children are able to walk to school, and when you are able to live near your job, it really makes life a lot better for you," he said. "We are well on our way to having some impact in 2017, and significant impact when we gain momentum in 2018."