In a cinder block middle school gym, through the muffled cheers and buzzers of a girls basketball game, Larry Millstead would like to talk about your child’s future.
He’s standing between a trophy case and the concessions stand — dodging kids running to the restroom and playing wall ball — passing out brochures about the jobs they might have a decade from now. If they’d stop by, he’d tell them that a manufacturing engineer makes $109,000 around here, or that a dental hygienist makes $59,000.
If salaries won’t get their attention, he figures plush basketballs might. So he asks the cheerleaders at Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School to toss some into the stands at halftime, stirring a frenzy for dozens of little messages.
“AIKEN WORKS” is printed on each one, promoting the program he runs, Aiken County’s ambitious effort to rethink what its schools are meant to do. Millstead’s job is to urge students, even 11-year-olds, to think hard about where they’re going and how they’re getting there — to make the case that a high school diploma alone won’t set them up for success.
That message is evidence of a new dynamic that has taken hold in Aiken County, forming a blueprint for one that is emerging elsewhere in the state: Businesses want the education system to do a better job getting students ready to work, and schools want them to back up reform efforts with input and investment.
South Carolina’s high schools graduate thousands of students each year who aren’t prepared for most jobs, holding back economic growth and hobbling the state’s poorest areas, The Post and Courier’s “Minimally Adequate” investigation found. The five-part series has renewed lawmakers’ interest in overhauling the state’s education system, with a focus on keeping up in an increasingly sophisticated economy.
The school district here has embraced job-readiness as a guiding principle, deciding that it ought to “redefine individual success” as a good livelihood, not a college degree. Business groups have, in turn, renewed their focus on the district’s needs, recasting the future of their school system as an economic imperative.
“I’ve seen consistently over time where public schools as a system really did not embrace in an overt way our responsibility for workforce development,” said Sean Alford, Aiken’s superintendent. “Job creators and employers aren’t hiring kids because of their diploma. When you graduate, you have to have a set of skills that somebody’s willing to pay you for.”
In Aiken County, smack in the middle of the state’s western edge, students start charting a path to the workplace in the sixth grade. They pick a career they’re interested in and counselors tell them what classes they ought to start taking. Elsewhere in South Carolina, those conversations usually start in the eighth grade.
The coursework can be specific: Langley-Bath-Clearwater students, who mostly come from a line of mill villages that have lost their mills, expressed an interest in medical fields. So the school opened a health sciences program this year with some 200 sixth- to eighth-graders.
The district pushes apprenticeships and job-shadowing in high school, hiring Millstead to drum up interest among students and businesses. It markets those programs in movie theaters and on billboards, and it sends him to make the pitch in person, from the suburbs of Augusta to peach-orchard towns like Monetta, from Chamber of Commerce lunches to basketball games.
His work linking the future of its schools to the fate of its businesses reflects a view that is emerging across South Carolina, from business groups’ political agendas to the governor’s inaugural address. The state’s economic vitality is indelibly linked to its education system.
But Aiken County has a something the state’s leaders have only recently begun to develop, Alford said: “a tremendous sense of urgency.”
‘Lulled to sleep’
Aiken’s first turning point came five years ago, in the last section of a report crunching census data.
A pair of economists found something that most everyone already knew: Thousands of people were driving each day across the Savannah River from homes in Georgia to jobs in Aiken County, mostly at the federal government’s massive Savannah River Site.
But laid out in a report, the numbers were striking. Nearly 4,000 families had chosen against the county, taking their tax dollars and salaries with them.
The economists suggested that Aiken County’s aging schools were driving them away. Georgia’s schools were seen as better than South Carolina’s, and they had glittering new buildings to boot.
The next came when the Army decided to move its Cyber Command — the front lines of America’s digital warfare — to a base seven miles outside Augusta.
Aiken was already losing families who’d come to work in South Carolina, and now it would have to compete for a piece of a boom starting across the nearby state line. They expected high stakes, and high standards: thousands of new families, led by parents with the education and tech savvy to defend the military online.
Yet another turning point was playing out before them. Aiken County wasn’t growing very quickly — its leaders thought its population might even flatline — and its people were aging. Retirements were coming, and employers weren’t sure where their new workers would come from.
“All of these warning signs suggest a loss of economic stability that threatens the quality of life that we all enjoy in Aiken County,” the economists’ report said.
Business groups started wondering if the county would be able to keep growing. They wondered if they’d be able to fill the jobs the county already had. Or the jobs it had recently gained, at companies like Bridgestone, which makes the world’s largest tires in Trenton and MTU, a subsidiary of Rolls-Royce that makes huge, 20-cylinder diesel engines in Graniteville.
“Our community had really been lulled to sleep,” said David Jameson, president of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce.
But the region’s business leaders began to rally around the link between the quality of its school system and the quality of its workforce.
“I think the two go hand in hand, and I think our community leaders understand that,” he said.
‘Impediment for growth’
Aiken County’s schools are really no different than the rest of the state’s — certainly no worse.
Like the rest of South Carolina, fewer than half of its students meet state reading and math standards. About a third of its high school juniors test as unprepared for most jobs, matching the state average. Its oldest buildings are decades old, but hardly as outdated as schools in the state’s most isolated districts.
But in Aiken, it was easier to see how the state compared to its neighbors: Georgia was right there, and Augusta’s suburbs were building new schools.
Will Williams, the region’s top business recruiter, would sometimes plan tours for visiting executives that avoided school buildings, hoping they wouldn’t take the initiative to see the aging facilities for themselves. Before they’d invest in Aiken, he said, would-be employers wanted to see a community that was investing in itself.
“From the business community, I think that folks were seeing that the condition of our schools was an impediment for growth,” said Richard Harmon, president of Aiken-based Security Federal Bank.
School districts in South Carolina don’t have much flexibility to raise money for their day-to-day operations. State law caps how much they can raise property taxes, and decisions about how much each school gets and who pays for it are dictated by a complicated morass of formulas.
But they have lots of leeway to raise money for buildings. Local voters can tack an extra penny per dollar onto the sales tax to pay for school facilities, and they can give their school district permission to borrow money for construction projects.
Aiken County has done both, pulling on the main levers it has to improve its schools.
It now collects some $19 million a year for school buildings because voters approved an extra penny on the sales tax in 2014. And the county voted last year to borrow $90 million to build two new schools and renovate four others.
The district made presentations showing schools so crowded that students took classes in portable trailers and buildings so outdated that they didn’t have enough outlets to plug in all the technology that runs a modern classroom. Business groups endorsed both spending plans.
“It’s been a community-wide shift,” said Melissa Viola, director of the Aiken advocacy group Public Education Partners. “We had to air some dirty laundry, really show what our current reality was in the schools. We had to show that the schools were overcrowded and they were just old and out-of-date.”
The effort worked. The school district has built one new school so far, it’s finishing two more and it just started on another.
Aiken County sits as a microcosm of South Carolina.
It is suburban and rural, industrial and agricultural, quaint with a touch of tourism. It has seen the transformation of manufacturing — from the textile mills that were built along the valley between Aiken to Augusta to the technical and mechanized factories that took their place.
And it has seen those changes force the education system to adapt.
A similar sentiment is taking hold around the state. Business leaders and politicians have shown renewed interest in overhauling the state’s flagging education system, which the “Minimally Adequate” series found was struggling to keep up with increasingly advanced jobs.
The state Chamber of Commerce and business groups from Charleston, Columbia and Greenville are now asking the Legislature to give teachers a pay raise because they fear a mounting shortage of educators will contribute to an unprepared workforce.
And Gov. Henry McMaster used his inaugural address and State of the State speech to call for education reform this month, casting it as an economic necessity. He called for higher teacher pay, more oversight of struggling districts and economic development targeted at poor areas.
And he vowed to support an overhaul package proposed by House Speaker Jay Lucas, who named his plan with a nod to the economy: the Career Opportunity and Access for All Act.
“We are building an international reputation for business growth and progress,” the governor said Wednesday. “Being perceived as weak in any part of our state in education is not good. But being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous.”
MTU, the diesel engine manufacturer, is the kind of company that South Carolina has spent the last decade fighting to attract.
It came here from Michigan nine years ago, bringing hundreds of jobs to build massive motors that run trains, mining equipment and the world’s largest yachts. At first, 10 people applied for every job opening the company had.
But the pool of applicants dried up after a year or so, said Arjonetta Gaillard, the plant’s human resources manager. The company wasn’t really in touch with the school district, but it floated an idea it pulled from its German roots: Could a few high schoolers come over to work part-time?
The school district went for it, and in 2012 MTU hired South Carolina’s first youth apprentices. It takes in a half-dozen students each year, putting them through a job interview and a background test like the rest of its workers. Then it teaches them how to build an engine.
It has received in return a stream of potential applicants that it molded, and it got a closer tie to the school district — an opening to suggest that they teach the metric system, for instance.
“It should have been the school system coming to us and saying, ‘OK, what can we do for you and for industry? Is what we’re doing now working?’ ” Gaillard said. “That isn’t what was happening.”
The district has pushed to change that perception. MTU’s apprenticeship program set the stage for the Aiken Works initiative, which now aims to keep businesses closer to the schools.
The school district now sets out to find businesses that will hire students as apprentices, or at least let them spend a day in the office. And it appeals to students and their parents to take the opportunity.
The programs now include employers as large as the company that runs the Savannah River Site and as small as a family-owned timber company, which is why Bentley Bowman now spends afternoons cutting trees under the watch of his uncle, John Key.
Key co-founded Beech Island Timber and Construction decades ago, but he said the apprenticeship is giving his nephew a head start in understanding the business — to see how he might use his math classes to navigate the company’s balance sheet or his lessons on agriculture to tend a piece of land.
And then there are the lessons no school teaches — the people skills like getting to work on time and talking with customers, and the nitty-gritty skills like checking the fluids on a tree-cutting machine or using it to slice through pines like twigs.
Bowman is a junior in high school, but he runs the machine like an old hand. He’s helping to clear a huge tract on the edge of North Augusta where developers are planning a big bet on the future of Aiken County.
In a sense, they’re banking on South Carolina to win over some of the families that might otherwise go to Georgia, betting that they will buy some 1,500 homes and spend money at new shops, restaurants and supermarkets.
Aiken’s investment in its schools will be at its core: The district is expected to break ground on a pair of new schools in the development later this year.