- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A public residential school that seeks to transform the lives of troubled South Carolina teens has lost its accreditation, leaving its fate to the Legislature.

Lawmakers have long wanted to revamp John de la Howe School in rural McCormick County but couldn’t agree how. The state Department of Education’s decision earlier this month to yank accreditation effectively forces the 219-year-old school to close this summer unless another plan is approved.

“I’m very sad about this,” Superintendent Molly Spearman told the school’s administrators last week. “These are students who need tremendous emotional, academic and family support. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s far away and difficult to find and keep all those services. I know it’s a difficult, difficult job you have.”

Deficiencies cited by her agency include classes taught by uncertified teachers, an inability to meet all the needs of students with disabilities and concern about connectivity for online classes. The school sits on 1,200 acres inside a forest, about 100 miles west of Columbia.

A proposal passed by the House would transfer John de la Howe’s money to the Department of Juvenile Justice and require a panel of state agencies to recommend - by Sept. 30 - a less costly way to help at-risk youth. The school spends the equivalent of $92,100 annually per student, according to state officials, who recognize that many students don’t stay a full year.

“The school has to change to be viable,” said Rep. Kenny Bingham, who leads House Ways and Mean’s K-12 panel. “We’re spending too much money for the students currently served.”

Senators are working on their plan.

“We need to get them out of the education business,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, who chairs K-12 issues. However, he believes the campus’ wilderness program for sixth- through eighth-grade boys should continue.

John de la Howe was founded as a farming school benefiting poor and orphaned children, as per the 1797 will of its namesake.

Its president, Danny Webb, said cost complaints stem from the misconception that his agency is solely a school.

State-supported since 1918, John de la Howe provides 24-hour care for sixth- through 10th-graders with serious behavior problems. The school’s roughly 70 employees include teachers and dorm counselors - one for every eight students, across three shifts, Webb said.

“What we do is very viable to the state,” said Webb, who was hired in 2014. “Not only does it afford those students who have been expelled or on the verge an opportunity to continue their education,” but their removal also improves learning in the classrooms they leave behind since “their behavior is so disruptive to the education process itself.”

John de la Howe board Chairman Dan Shonka said another reason the cost looks so exorbitant is because the school’s enrollment grows as the year progresses and more students get expelled from their schools.

As of Monday, 72 were enrolled. Capacity is 104. It could accept 16 more if two cottages could be repaired and re-licensed, Webb said.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how to have a more stable enrollment,” said Shonka, a retired Pickens County teacher who joined the board two years ago.

Shonka said options could include taking in truant students and homeless students or making the campus - which already has a herd of cattle, horses and a greenhouse - an agriculture-focused career center for nearby school districts. He said he wished discussions in the past year had been focused on such alternatives. The accreditation denial seemed “like a foregone conclusion,” he said.

“The school is probably done as we know it, but there are good possibilities,” he said.

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