LAKE CITY — Seventeen-year-old Mel Scott knew from watching the construction in his hometown that he wanted to take classes in the Continuum education center, which opened its doors this month to area high schoolers and adults.
Still, he didn't realize just how impressive it would be until he stepped inside.
"I wasn't expecting this," the Lake City High School senior said, a big grin on his face Wednesday as he toured the 46,000-square-foot facility.
"It's bigger," he said, pausing as he looked up to the wood ceilings and glass walls. "And ... everything."
But the $25 million Continuum — funded by businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore — is much more than a beautiful building. The goal is to transform the local economy by providing students and adults in the poor, rural Pee Dee access to college courses and workforce training in classrooms that use the latest equipment and technology.
This semester, Francis Marion University is offering 10 courses — including statistics, business, European history and environmental biology — at the Continuum to high school juniors and seniors looking to earn credit toward both their high school diploma and college degree. That allows them to enter college with enough credits to be a sophomore, lessening the total tuition tab.
Students can also take dual-credit classes in welding, mechatronics and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) through Florence-Darlington Technical College, which also offers 34 classes for adults working toward a two- or four-year degree. Or they can get certified to be a nurse's assistant, truck driver or phlebotomy technician (someone who draws blood).
The Continuum also offers space to help entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into success. Francis Marion's Kelley Center for economic development is taking applications now from would-be small-business owners wanting to occupy one of the Continuum's five "business incubator" spaces, where they can stay for a year and get help in areas such as budgeting and secretarial services.
"There's nothing like this in the state that's a one-stop shop that covers high school through college," said Moore, a Lake City native. "There's nothing available in this region that would give people access to this kind of training. I think it is a model. It’s not bound by county boundaries or school district boundaries. It’s offered to the region."
Lawmakers say they're excited about the new opportunities the Continuum will provide Pee Dee students and think replicating it could be part of the answer for boosting other struggling, rural regions of the state.
"The Continuum is a perfect example of the kind of innovation that can come from partnerships between the public and private sectors," said Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes. "Hopefully, this can serve as an example of how we can evolve and improve workforce training around the state."
'You are a college student'
Scott is among 200 Florence County juniors and seniors who will start college courses this week.
Anna Todd, Francis Marion's dual enrollment director, told the teens at Wednesday's orientation their credits will transfer to any public college in South Carolina, and most private ones, when they graduate. But she cautioned them the work will be harder and expectations higher than what they're likely used to in high school.
"This is college. You've got to be responsible and mature," Todd said. "Show up and be there. You're not going to get a folder with make-up work."
The presentation left Scott, who's taking environmental biology, disappointed about only one thing: Two days a week of 75-minute lectures, plus lab work on Fridays, means he won't be spending as much time at the Continuum as he'd hoped.
"I'm going to like it here," he said.
Previously, students from Lake City and other rural parts of Florence County had to travel to Florence to take classes at Francis Marion, Florence-Darlington Tech or Florence School District One's career center. Not only does the Continuum shorten what was a 30- to 45-minute drive, it already provides more choices than what was available before. And there are plans to offer more classes next year.
Plus, the center is working to expand the options to students in the neighboring counties of Marion, Clarendon and Williamsburg, with transportation being the main thing to work out.
And while the Continuum was built with rural students in mind, some students from the city of Florence are also choosing to attend classes at the brand new facility with more options.
"It's really big and really nice — a lot nicer than my high school," said Constance Mixon, 16, a junior at South Florence High, who's driving 45 minutes each way to take business and political science at the Continuum.
In this inaugural semester, about 300 students total are taking classes at the Continuum. About a third of the 100 people enrolled in the technical college's programs are adults.
But the building could easily accommodate more than 1,000 students, said Continuum's executive director, Jeanette Altman.
That means every junior and senior in Lake City and four surrounding school districts could enroll, and there'd still be room for more.
The Continuum "levels the playing field" for students in rural high schools that don't have the teachers to offer high-level courses or the facilities for career training, said Altman, who expects her own two children, a seventh grader and sophomore, will take advantage of the center.
"If you're going to a four-year college, you need the rigor to prepare you for that level of class. If you're going either straight to work or a two-year degree, you need the hands-on experience, and this provides both," she said. "Either route is going to give you a very good income stream, and that's what it's all about, providing opportunities.
"One thing the organizers of the Continuum realized is, there were many students who either didn't have the means or the test scores to go the four-year route, so having these options available where they can choose to either learn a skill, go straight to work and be productive and not incur all these mounds of student debt was definitely something this area needed," she said. "What you see here is an answer to that."
The Continuum as a model
State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said she will work with state and community leaders to bring similar opportunities to other struggling regions.
“The Continuum is helping pave the way for a new level of collaboration between K-12, technical college, four-year higher education, and business and industry," she said.
But re-creating the Continuum will largely be a matter of money. How much it would take is unknown. And other regions lack a benefactor like Moore, whose other efforts to revitalize her hometown include starting the ArtFields competition and opening a 65-acre botanical garden, to make it happen.
This year's state budget could provide a start, depending on how $37.5 million designated to help poor, rural districts pay for new construction or renovations is actually spent. High schools and career centers shared by the state's tiniest districts that choose to consolidate get first dibs on that money.
Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he's "very excited about the potential of the Continuum."
"While this ambitious project is still in its infancy, I have faith that it will prove successful. With that success will undoubtedly come a movement to apply this formula throughout South Carolina," he said, noting the Continuum wouldn't exist without Moore.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, likewise credited Moore and called the "all-encompassing facility" an exciting example of what a public-private partnership can achieve.
"This is another example of the Darla Moore Foundation's continued commitment to the Pee Dee and the state," he said. "This innovative educational structure will yield tremendous results for our region and the state as a whole. I believe this program will demonstrate the value of the public-private model in higher education, which will lead to greater investment in workforce development and a stronger economy for all of South Carolina."