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Education: School district reviews proposal for tech magnet school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A proposal by state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch to create a magnet program for science and technology is under review by Georgetown County school officials. It’s seen as a way to prepare students for careers and attract industry to the county by providing a skilled workforce.

The effort comes at a time when the school district is preparing a long-range capital projects plan. It is also looking at ways to improve the district’s career center, located on the Georgetown High campus. “We need to bring that up to the 21st century,” School Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

He and School Board Chairman Jim Dumm met with Goldfinch and county and industry leaders last week to discuss the idea of a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM subjects. “Is a magnet school feasible in Georgetown?” Goldfinch asked.

He thinks a program that prepares students for both university and careers would be an attraction for businesses looking at Georgetown County. “A magnet school makes sense,” said Stella Mercado, president of Mercom, a technology company. But she said the STEM skills are no longer limited to one group of students. “STEM is a component of every job,” she said.

But she agreed the concept would appeal to the demographic her company wants to attract to its staff.

The quality of the labor pool is the top consideration for companies looking for sites, said Tim Tilley, president of EnviroSep, an engineering and manufacturing company. “Everything else becomes secondary,” he said. The qualified labor supply in Georgetown County rises and falls, he added.

The school district has committed $2 million toward an $8 million manufacturing center at the Horry-Georgetown Technical College campus in Georgetown, Dozier said. “That’s a magnet school,” he said. “It’s something nobody else offers.” Creating a stand-alone STEM program would be hard, but he said that the district could develop that within existing facilities. “Creating a course of study for STEM is something we can do,” he told Goldfinch.

The state Education Oversight Committee, which makes recommendations on spending funds collected through the Education Improvement Act, has asked the governor and legislature to create a program that helps rural communities attract teachers in STEM subjects. Dozier pointed out that STEM is a statewide concern.

“We’ve done a real good job of college readiness, not so good with the career center,” Dozier said. He has quarterly meetings with representatives from local industry, but said it’s sometimes hard to get people to attend, he said.

A magnet school would help energize connections between the school district and industry, Mercado said. Just the preliminary discussion is seen as a way to improve that link.

The district needs to expand its guidance programs to promote career education, Dumm said.

While the district will have funds to spend on facilities as it retires bonds issued in the late 1990s for its last major round of construction, Dozier said it could use some help in freeing up funds for operations. It spends $1.5 million a year to provide security at each of its 18 schools and after school activities. “Maybe you can help,” he told Goldfinch.

Goldfinch said afterward that he understands the district has other costs, and not just security. “There’s a huge bureaucracy built up around education,” he said. But he took heart from Dozier’s comments that the district can tailor programs to the existing budget. “I understand it’s not a magnet school,” he said. “Why can’t we have a program that does something amazing with the same pot of money?”

And if a program to boost both job skills and achievement is successful, “who would be ashamed of spending a little more money if it brings in jobs,” Goldfinch said.

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