The first year at Cooper River Center for Advanced Studies hasn’t gone exactly as principal Vanessa Brown had imagined.
Enrolled students have the opportunity to study several career pathways — architecture and construction; manufacturing; transportation, distribution and logistics; health science; arts, AV technology and communications; STEM; and information technology. All the programs of study align with immediate, high-demand, high-wage employment opportunities in the region, two-year technical school programs and four-year university degrees.
At the building dedication last fall, Brown, a lifelong resident of North Charleston and a product of Charleston County schools, pledged that she and her staff would develop highly trained professionals.
“Now students who live in the same neighborhood as I grew up in will have access to study and explore the careers they may have previously considered beyond their reach,” she said.
The center’s mission has been simple: plan, prepare and pursue. However, with school buildings shut down and restricted because of safety precautions, it’s been challenging to have hands-on training. But Brown said the school is pressing through.
“It’s burst our bubble a little bit. We really wanted to get kids in here and kind of change the instruction model with a little less about talking and more about demonstration and modeling, and giving the kids that really experiential learning,” Brown said.
The pandemic also has hampered recruitment. Staff had just started heading to schools in person to begin the process and get the word out when the coronavirus struck in March.
“That really impacted our efforts. We weren’t really able to get the word out as much as we wanted to for kids to know what was going to be happening, so that they would register and come here,” Brown said.
Enrollment is open to primarily junior and senior students in District 4 and Burke High School who are interested in CRCAS’ career fields and have the skill set and aptitude to manage the schedule. Registering occurs the same way a student would choose classes for his or her neighborhood school.
Students can choose one of the seven career pathways or clusters, and from a major in one of the 12 career-readiness programs. Those who finish become a “completor” by taking four courses throughout the school year via either a morning or afternoon session.
Students then split their time between their home school and CRCAS. For the morning program, they are picked up from their residence, head to CRCAS for two classes, and then the bus brings them back to their home school to finish out the afternoon. The afternoon program is similar in structure, with students picked up from their home school, then returned there or at their residence after CRCAS classes are done for the day.
Brown said the goal is for all students to leave CRCAS with a strong work ethic and a certification in their particular field of study.
“Each of our programs are tied with a national industry certification,” she said.
Students who are studying health sciences, for example, could leave with a certification in CPR or basic life safety, as well as a child care certification. Those studying the global logistics and supply chain management track would ideally leave with a certification in management, while those in the automotive track leave with similar certifications.
The academic plan also includes tying students to apprenticeships or internships in their trade.
“As we prepare these young men and women for the jobs that are coming to our area, we have been very successful in landing major businesses within our community, and we need to make sure that our young people are prepared to take those jobs when they come in, not have to bring people from outside to do those jobs,” North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said at the building dedication.
CRCAS is one of three career centers planned by Charleston County School District. The first, East Cooper Center for Advanced Studies, opened in 2019, and the West Ashley Center for Advanced Studies, which will serve Districts 9, 10 and 23, is currently under construction.
What makes the school such an added value for North Charleston is that it centralizes programs. If a program is thriving at one school, but not at another, a student still has the opportunity to receive the best education. For example, North Charleston High School has a strong health science program, but R.B. Stall High School does not, Brown said. On the opposite hand, R.B. Stall had a thriving aerospace program. Now students can have the best of both worlds, she said.
The school also benefits taxpayers by not duplicating services and using resources regionally, Brown said.
“I can take one or two teachers and centralize them here in this building. I can then take the space that was at that school and I can still give them another teacher or another great program. It may no longer be engineering, but they could have a great culinary or business program.”
Though CRCAS’ career pathways have been determined, Brown understands that interests of students and what’s happening in the industry could change in 10 years and the school will be flexible to it. The focuses are not static, allowing the curriculum to best serve students and the region.
“Our model here is that we’re developing highly trained professionals. We want to make sure that they are developing a plan for what it is they want to do after high school,” Brown said. “You have to have a plan. Once you have a plan, we’ll make sure you’re pursuing it.”