Tech, online options for S.C. schools

Upstate automaker BMW offers apprenticeship programs to students taking mechatronics and other automotive-related courses at nearby trade schools. (Provided)

For decades, South Carolina has struggled to provide better education to rural students and address failing schools. The challenges are numerous, but two stand out above all others: providing sufficient funding and attracting quality educators.

Hiring and keeping bright young teachers in the state’s most remote school districts can be all but impossible, leaving too many students in overcrowded classrooms with overstretched educators. Despite improved school funding and poverty weighting systems, schools in poorer parts of the state face chronic financial difficulties.

But even the worst performing schools might still be turned around — with a little creativity. And South Carolina legislators have some forward-thinking ideas that could make a big difference.

During a legislative media workshop held earlier this month, Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union, recommended that rural schools focus on providing career and technology education. Rather than investing in new classroom programs, Rep. Anthony suggests that students could be better served through business partnerships and trade apprenticeships.

Greater collaboration with the state’s burgeoning manufacturing and tech industries could certainly provide a fresh way for students to develop practical skills that can lead to stable, high-paying jobs. And Gov. Nikki Haley’s achievement of bringing jobs to 45 of 46 counties in her first term suggests that the opportunity is ripe.

South Carolina already has a successful statewide apprenticeship program called Apprenticeship Carolina, which offers tax breaks to companies that hire employees for work-training purposes. High school students, young adults and others who want to learn valuable skills can earn money and school credit at the same time.

Since its creation in 2007, Apprenticeship Carolina has generated national publicity as a model initiative. More than 9,000 students have participated thus far. Program expansion could help reach more high school students, provide greater incentives to employers and cover more industries.

Apprenticeship Carolina also relies on South Carolina’s strong technical college system, which includes 16 schools spread throughout the state.

It would be worth exploring direct partnerships between high schools and nearby employers in order to better accommodate students without easy access to a technical college campus.

Some state legislators have also proposed expanding virtual education as a way to provide quality educators for rural students. While virtual classes can’t be considered an ideal substitute for teachers in the classroom, they could help fill crucial learning gaps for struggling schools.

And if students prefer online classes, they now have the option of forgoing brick and mortar schools entirely. South Carolina currently has five fully virtual charter schools, including two K-12 programs.

As more students enroll in and complete virtual programs, their experiences will provide valuable insight into a new frontier of educational alternatives.

The obstacles to providing a good education for each and every South Carolina student are complex, and will require serious and sustained legislative, community and parental support to overcome.

This session, the Legislature should advance cutting-edge solutions.