MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - With the Bojangles Southern 500 race right around the corner in Darlington, we checked out a local high school specializing in motor sports. It's the only one of it's kind in the country. The students take on an unconventional career path, but the school has doubled in size in just a few years.
The race cars are the hook reeling in students to PALM Charter High School. Once there, students learn hands-on skills that help secure trade jobs for the future. These skills include car building, painting, welding and graphics design. The school graduated 29 students in June, only to gain almost 50 more. About 115 kids attend the school now.
"Race cars and the cars and the fun we have with learning it is the sexy part of this and gets them in here...and then without even realizing it they've picked up on these skills, and they can use them even if it's just a hobby, it keeps them off the street, gives them something they always want to do, supporting the racing community where we came from…and that sport needs help," PALM vocational director and former race car driver Ron Miller said.
Charter Schools are still free and part of Horry County Schools, therefore the school receives funding for each student. Basic classes like math and English are taught as well. However, when a charter school has a vocational focus, like PALM, that vocation must be completely funded by donations.
This is leading to problems for PALM. Their charter puts the student capacity at 200 students. Although they're at 115 students, principal Avery Moor said it's already pushing the resources the school has. A motor sport vocation is expensive, and faculty has to use their own resources to search for cars and parts for the students to teach the classes. The money used to buy the resources comes completely from donations.
Moor said the school is so strapped for money, they can't accommodate staff to students. Teachers are teaching every period, with no planning periods to prepare for the next class.
"[Students] tell other ones about it and they're really starting to come here almost in droves, almost to the point it's getting scary for us to hold this balance in this facility. We almost need another facility that's more conducive to student movement, having vehicles, this learning environment, the academic piece of this…we just need another facility," Miller said.
Right now, Strand Metals in Myrtle Beach and Nucor Steel in Darlington help keep the classes going. Miller said both companies take in students as apprentices and donate leftover scrap.
PALM is the only specialized motor sports high school in the country. School leaders said it fills a need for unique kids who don't fit the "academic mold" and prefer to work with their hands.
Principal Moor and Miller think it will take a donation from someone with a major stake in motor sports to help them get the extra push to turn the school into the competitive, prestigious motor sports school they see it turning in to years from now.
"People like Rick Hendrick are going to be at Darlington next weekend. They realize where they came from, they realize the trouble that NASCAR's in for new people to get in it. So I feel like it's going to take a Rick Hendrick or a Jack Roush, people like that, to realize…this is really an incubator for the sport," Miller said.
CORRECTION: On air it wasn't clear only the vocational* side of charter schools is provided completely by donations. Charter Schools receive money from Horry County schools for each student.