Frustrated with low enrollment and high per-pupil cost, South Carolina’s General Assembly floated the idea of closing John de la Howe before it ordered the embattled school to study the feasibility of a wholesale transformation. Legislators wanted to know whether the school, which sits on 1,300 acres in McCormick County, could expand its agriculture program.

The company that conducted the study, Student-Centered Education Consulting Group, concluded “The potential for John de la Howe is tremendous … It is feasible and possible to make the change. However the school is going to have to let go of the past, overcome the negatives, and move to a new mission.”

“I do think the strategic plan they were given recently can help the save the day in so many ways if it is executed,” state Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville, said earlier this year. “But we’ve got a battleship here to turn around.”

That process is now well underway. Student housing is being renovated, tracts of forested land are being cleared for use as fields on which crops can be grown and livestock can graze, and a curriculum, centered around agriculture, is being crafted. The hope is that a school which used to serve at-risk students who had been expelled from their home schools because of behavioral issues will now attract “the best and the brightest,” said Sharon Wall, interim president.

Like much of de la Howe’s leadership, Wall is new to her position. Five of the eight members of the board of trustees were appointed this year. Shortly after their first meeting, they chose Wall to lead the school’s turnaround.

“I was the one who recommended we hire her, because I felt like she was the person to bring us to where we needed to be,” said Hugh Bland, chairman of the board and one of the five members appointed earlier this year. “I had seen what a good job she had done bringing some bad situations under control.”

“She has been a blessing,” said Frank Dorn, director of agriculture. “She just has the respect of Columbia, and she knows how to run a school system, and she know what it’s gonna take to get this place operating like it needs to be.”

Not her first ‘interim’ role

This is the third time Wall has had the title of “interim. Previously, she was interim superintendent at Abbeville County School District and Greenwood County School District 52.

“I heard the stories, and I’ve seen the evidence of some of the things that probably should have been done differently,” Wall said of de la Howe. “But my focus is to take us forward and to take us where we want to be. This place can be amazing once again.”

Enrollment had been falling at de la Howe for years. In 1989 the school began serving at-risk students, but in the years since, school districts have opened their own alternative schools that service the same population, said Jimmy Littlefield, who worked on the feasibility study.

Weeks before Wall’s appointment as interim president, the state Inspector General, Brian Lamkin, conducted a review of the school’s finances and found there were only 30 students and 55 full-time staff members.

“The concerns for overstaffing are justified,” Lamkin told the House Legislative Oversight Committee at the time. De la Howe has since stopped accepting new students. As of June 1, there were none at the school.

Last Tuesday, “approximately 40 positions relating to the housing, care, counseling and education of students,” were laid off, according to a press release issued by John de la Howe. “We realized that we must scale back our operations until the campus is ready to accept high school students at the new school for agriculture,” Wall said.

The Inspector General found other issues, including “misuse” of funds. He recommended a forensic audit of de la Howe’s finances prior to 2017. WebsterRogers LLP of Charleston will conduct the audit.

Lamkin did applaud the efforts of Sylvaster Coleman, de la Howe’s director of finance and business, who came to de la Howe in September 2016.

“We’re ensuring that our internal processes and fiscal management is in compliance with the state’s,” Coleman told the Index-Journal. After the layoffs, they will be “realigning some of our funding, so that we can address facility needs, particularly the work of deferred maintenance that hasn’t occurred in the last couple years.”

What lies ahead

“What we’re going to do in the next year or two is develop a preventative maintenance plan for buildings and equipment,” said Richard Lewis, director of maintenance. Previously, the approach to maintenance had been “patch and go.”

“If you could fix it cheaply, you’d fix it cheaply, and that’s not good for the long term,” he said. Not wanting to point fingers, he said that that was simply the “mindset at the time.”

The total cost of renovating the buildings on campus has yet to be calculated, Coleman said, but is expected to fall under de la Howe’s annual operating budget, which is roughly $5.5 million. Thus far, several cottages, which house the students, have been completed.

While facilities are being renovated, another team, led by Gerald Moore of Student-Centered Education Consulting Group, is putting together the curriculum.

“We’ll look at five different areas [of study],” said Dorn, who is also working on the curriculum: animal and plant science and production — that’s conventional farming; horticultural, landscape and turf management; forestry and wildlife environmental science; agricultural leadership and agribusiness; and agricultural mechanics.

The core curriculum will be “tailored a little more to the ag and sciences side,” Littlefield said. There will be “a lot of cooperation between academic and ag teachers.”

“You’re gonna learn more of a functional English,” Dorn said. “How to write business letters, articles, grants. You’re gonna learn how to use English in the proper way to better use if you’re in forestry, ag mechanics, whatever.”

“When they finish us,” Wall said, “they’ll be able to transition to a two-year college, a four-year college, and/or the world of work. Because not everybody needs to go to college. Some of our board members have never been to college and they’re outstanding businessmen.”

Dorn stressed the demand for workers with technical and practical skills. Companies “just don’t have people who know how to do that anymore,” he said. “They have to spend six months of an employee’s job just teaching them how to do stuff.”

Dorn and Wall like to emphasize the technological aspect of the curriculum, which they hope will appeal to kids who do not come from a rural background or may otherwise be averse to attending an agricultural school.

“They can fly a drone over an area that me and you can’t walk through, but they can find pine beetle infestations or problem areas,” Dorn said. “Somebody’s gotta repair that drone when it crashes. And somebody’s gotta know how to operate that drone.”

Welcome change of course

The transition to an agricultural magnet school will be a slight departure from the will of the school’s namesake – John de la Howe — who left his land “to establish an agricultural or farm school, with the yearly income to be used to feed, clothe and educate 12 poor boys and 12 poor girls” in 1797.

John de la Howe board members received a memorandum last year from attorney Rob Tyson, of Sowell Gray Robinson Stepp & Laffitte LLC, that said an agricultural education program would align with de la Howe’s will and plans for the campus.

Nevertheless, the fact that the school will no longer primarily serve the less fortunate is a departure.

“Yes, it’ll be a change from Dr. John de la Howe’s will,” said Geroge McClain, president of the school’s alumni association. Nevertheless, he hasn’t “met anyone recently who isn’t looking forward to the change that’s coming.”

Several people echoed that excitement.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to attend hearings with Dr. Wall in Columbia,” Coleman said. “I’m about to complete my second year here at John de la Howe, and this is the first time I can recall having dialogue and seeing some excitement from [legislators].”

The next step for Wall will be marketing the school-to-be. She hopes to begin meeting with school district superintendents later this month. “We’re going to be doing some press releases and some launches and some things along the way, you know, whetting peoples appetite.”

Wall said the enrollment goal is 200 students.

Coleman hopes it will be “a showcase not only for South Carolina, but for the nation.”

“This is something I think we can all look back on,” Dorn said. “It won’t be a lot of honors and accolades, but it’s gonna be something we can kinda smile at ourselves and say, ‘you know, we had a hand in that.’”

“This is gonna make it,” Wall said. “This place is gonna be rocking and rolling.”

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.