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The commission for the Technical College of the Lowcountry gave final approval Tuesday to a magnet program at Whale Branch High School that would allow students to earn credits toward an associates degree or college certificate while still in high school.
Valerie Truesdale, superintendent of the county school district, said the program at the Seabrook school, opening next fall, will provide new opportunities for students in a high-poverty area.
"What we're talking about doing is changing the culture for an entire community," Truesdale said. "It's setting the bar high. ... It's saying to those children, 'You can achieve college.' "
TCL president Tom Leitzel said, "The excitement in the community has just grabbed everyone. We're honored to be partnering in this."
Earlier this month, the county Board of Education approved the plan, which allows students to graduate from high school with a college credential from TCL after four years.
The program will serve all students in the designated Whale Branch High attendance area. The attendance area has not yet been established by the school board. Other county students who meet certain benchmarks on TCL's entrance exam will be able to apply.
The school district and TCL will share costs associated with college-level classes. Students will be encouraged to take six hours of college classes -- typically two courses -- each semester so they qualify for S.C. Lottery Tuition Assistance.
TCL hopes to offer at least 10 courses per semester at the Whale Branch campus with 17 students per course. TCL plans to hold evening classes for adults in the area at the school in the fall.
Information about the early college program will be submitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in March, said Gina Mounfield, vice president for academic affairs. The association will then schedule a visit to evaluate the program, she said.
Truesdale assured the commission that students in the Whale Branch area and other parts of the county are capable of college-level work. She said the district already has started using a curriculum with an emphasis on science, math, engineering and technology at Whale Branch Middle School to prepare students for the technical programs.
"We can't afford for this thing to fail," said TCL commissioner Bill Bootle.
Commissioner Patricia Green agreed: "For the students, this is their salvation. They need this."