Leadership Ledger: Leadership Lancaster delves into education

Return to the world of locker combinations, class schedules and pop quizzes.
For me and the other 20 members of Leadership Lancaster, Wednesday, Dec. 12, was all about education, as we spent the entire day learning about public school, private school and collegiate opportunities in Lancaster County.
And fittingly, the first thing we did was take a test.
Lancaster County School District Superintendent Dr. Gene Moore gave an overview of the district, which has 20 schools and more than 11,000 students.
Moore said the district is the 16th largest of the 85 school districts in South Carolina.
But he just didn't outright give us that information. We had to take an interactive test, in which we used remote controllers to pick answers for a series of multiple-choice questions displayed on a projector.  
Through the test, our group gained a wealth of other knowledge about the district, which for years has been the largest employer in Lancaster County. Nearly 900 of those folks are teachers or administrators.
Moore said economic conditions aren't as bad as they were a few years ago, when the district had to eliminate 100 teaching positions. Employees even received a raise this year for the first time since 2008.
“Things are a lot better,” Moore said.
“While you probably aren't going to get rich in it, there are several rewards in teaching,” he said.
Other statistics include the fact that the school district has a 4.2 percent dropout rate and 79.7 percent graduation rate, which is up 6 percent from last year.
“It's a lot better than people think,” Moore said.
High-tech learning
After leaving the district office, our Leadership group headed to North Elementary School, which is the recipient of many accolades in recent years, including being recognized as an Exemplary Writing School.
Dr. Linda Blackwell, North Elementary's principal, spoke of the school's strong emphasis on technology this year, which was quickly noticed by the gadget-related poster displays in the hallways.
With tablets and computers having such prominence in children's lives now, Blackwell said it's vital that educators use those same devices in the classroom.
There's at least one SmartBoard in every North Elementary classroom, and the faculty wants to do the same with tablets.
“Our focus this year is technology,” Blackwell said. “It's all about helping every child learn and moving them forward.”
Private school opportunities
Following lunch at North Elementary, we ventured over to Carolina Christian Academy, the only private school in Lancaster – serving children from kindergarten through 12th grade.  
School Administrator Dr. Huey Mills guided us on tour of the school, which now has 210 students. 
Mills said strong corporate and community support since its inception in the 1990s has allowed CCA to remain strong.
With many parents opting to enroll their students at CCA, he said less of a financial burden is placed on local public schools – speaking in terms of the amount of governmental funding allocated per student.
“We save the county and state over $2 million a year,” Mills said. “Everything is paid for with private dollars.”
Leadership Lancaster then delved into higher education, with a tour of the new Native American Studies Center in downtown Lancaster. The facility is part of the University of South Carolina Lancaster, which continues to grow and expand in size and enrollment.
USCL Dean Dr. John Catalano said construction has begun on a new $7.5 million building, which will feature more than 20 classrooms and nearly 30 faculty offices.
Housing for college students is also in the works as crews continue improvements on nearby Brook Drive. That area will be the location for apartments exclusively for students.
Catalano added that from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. most days, classes are in session at USCL.
“It's a busy campus,” he said. “We're really proud of it.”
The value of education
Our Leadership Lancaster class, which convenes monthly, is sponsored by the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber President Dean Faile put our full-day experience into practical, economic perspective.
If any of us end up chatting with a new employee at our respective company, that person will likely ask about the quality of education in the county.
With knowledge of the strong options available, we can confidently tell them that Lancaster County will provide great education opportunities for their children, Faile said.
“How you answer that question (of education quality) can influence where they choose to live,” he said.
Leadership Lancaster participant Hunter Thompson, owner and operator of the Lancaster Chick-fil-A, agrees.
“The future of business in this town hinges on our schools,” he said.