McCORMICK -- Cherry Brown, the director of residential services at John de la Howe School, has seen children enter and leave the school for more than 20 years.
Mrs. Brown said shutting down the school that has turned drug dealers into honor students would be a tragedy.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford wants to close the school and hand it over to the Department of Juvenile Justice, which he says would save about $3.2 million.
But school officials say combining de la Howe with the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School in West Columbia will mean giving up on children who need help.
They say de la Howe provides a support system for children . Through strict rules, students learn respect for others, how to live in a group and how to become part of a family, Superintendent George Young said."Some parents can't be parents all the time, and so we provide that," he said. " Our main focus is education and getting them back on track. We are their last chance."
Started in 1797 as a farm school for orphans, the school now serves children, ages 11 to 18, who are at risk of dropping out of school or going to jail.
"To see these children and give them the love they needed, I know I am helping them," said Betty Carroll, 48, a youth counselor who lives with pupils on school grounds. " They need this school and the staff to become better people."
Mr. Young said he has had an outpouring of support from the McCormick County Council, alumni, parents and local residents . Mr. Young said he worries about the future of the children , but fears closing the school could destroy one of the state's poorest counties .
"The governor says he is trying to help rural areas, but that doesn't make sense to us," he said. "McCormick County needs this school, and I don't think people realize what we do here."
The school is the third-largest employer in McCormick County, which has just 10,000 residents and is already struggling with 11.1 percent unemployment.
Ronnie Davis, a board of trustees member and a de la Howe alumnus , said he doesn't want it turned into a Department of Juvenile Justice facility.
"I have a lot of ties here, and if DJJ takes over, residents in the area are not going to be happy, " he said . "The governor has never been on this campus; he knows nothing about the kids here."
Sharon Hughes, also an alumna , said she has been trying to talk to local representatives and has been to Columbia twice to show her support for the school.
"Lawmakers aren't listening," she said. "This school does a wonderful job and actually helps children. Budget cuts are affecting everyone in the state, but I don't think you should cut this school to nothing without all the facts."