EDISTO ISLAND — More than half of the children at Edisto Beach Elementary gathered in Linda Hirschfeld's classroom for their social studies lesson.
For most schools, cramming half of their student body into one room would be impossible. That's not a problem here in the state's smallest school.
The school has a total of nine — yes, nine — students in kindergarten through sixth grades, so multiple grades in the same classroom is the norm. And they wouldn't have it any other way.
“I like that it's small,” said fourth-grader Julia Camp. “When you're the only student, you get more help when you need it. It's not so crowded, and it's not so loud.”
What the school lacks in size it makes up for with love. The community has embraced it for nearly 30 years, and many feel heartbroken about the Colleton County School Board's decision last week to shutter it in 2013-14.
It came down to money and a harsh reality: small schools are more expensive to operate.
The looming closure is the second blow in recent weeks for this island community. Just five miles down the road, Jane Edwards Elementary in Charleston County is slated to lose its sixth graders this fall, and that will shrink the already small school of 110 students. Residents fear that will make it easier to close.
A similar scenario has been playing out nearly 100 miles away in McClellanville, which is on the northern end of Charleston County. Residents are fighting the school superintendent's plan to pull middle grades out of their lone high school, Lincoln High, in part because they worry it could doom the school to closure.
This battle to sustain small rural schools is being waged across the county and the country. Residents are fiercely protective of their schools because they often are centers of their communities. Generations of families pass through the same classrooms, and the buildings serve as gathering spaces for everything from reunions to fundraisers.
Although many school leaders recognize the importance of having schools in remote communities, they face pressure to make the best use of limited dollars.
So the question confronting decision-makers is the same: At what point is a small, rural school too small and too expensive?
It's a heart-wrenching dilemma with no easy answers.
Life in an island school
Edisto Beach is just a slip of sand surrounded by water and the borders of Charleston County. It's about an hour south of Charleston.
At the elementary school, it's not unusual for the entire student body to be together.
During one recent day, two third-graders were doing a science experiment involving angles and balloon rockets.
The whole school of eight students — one kindergartner was out sick — ended up watching, and they laughed and clapped afterward. Some asked whether they could take a turn launching a balloon.
The whole school goes to the playground at recess, and they sit around the same table at lunchtime.
In a bigger school, a fourth-grader probably wouldn't interact much with a fifth-grader. Here, Camp, a fourth grader, is best friends with Gypsy Scott, a fifth-grader.
“We're all friends,” Scott said.
With so few students, the hallways and classrooms lack the constant chatter and movement that's typical in larger elementary schools.
Teachers tend to be facilitators, and older students work more independently. During one class, Hirschfeld told a third-grader to play an educational game on his iPad until she could finish a lesson with another student. The student dutifully did as told.
Aside from when Edisto Beach Elementary first opened, this is the smallest enrollment the school ever has seen. A typical year would see anywhere from 30 to 50 students, but that's plummeted during the past couple of years.
Although the community had about 100 more residents in 2010 compared to 2000, the number of school-age children has dropped by about 100, according to U.S. Census figures.
Jan Dossett, one of the school's former teachers who now is its office manager, pointed to the economy as the biggest reason for the decline in school-age children. Families have moved away for work-related reasons, she said.
Martha Strickland, who serves as the school's principal one day per week, agreed.
“The jobs are just not here anymore,” she said.
Families with young children don't often move to the island, and the children of those who have lived there are grown up, they said.
Edisto Beach Elementary students would have to travel about an hour to get to the nearest county school, but Jane Edwards Elementary, which is in Charleston County, is just five miles away.
School leaders in both districts said they hope to work out an arrangement so Edisto Beach students would be allowed to enroll in Jane Edwards Elementary. State law allows the transfer if both school districts' boards approve it.
Making it work
Two teachers for nine students sounds like an educator's dream job. Perhaps it would be, if all of those students were in the same grade.
The students at Edisto Beach Elementary span seven grades, so each teacher must cover two subjects — science and math for Sophie Sanders, and English/language arts and social studies for Hirschfeld.
Sanders and Hirschfeld each make 14 different lesson plans daily, and they must execute many of those simultaneously. Sanders keeps a skeletal sketch of her goals on a whiteboard in her classroom as a quick refresher.
The school's small size meant teachers already had more than one grade in their classes, but fewer students has been a challenge. Sanders needed a piece of paper and a pencil to make a chart showing how she and Hirschfeld cover four subjects for nine students in seven grades every day.
“We've had a lot of practice,” she said. “After 21 years, you get a knack for it.”
Sanders said she's able to address each student's strengths and weaknesses better than a teacher in a class with 25 students could.
And their test scores prove she does it well. The school's state report card rating is “good,” and it has been “excellent” for the three previous years.
There's no denying these teachers know their students. Sanders and Hirschfeld can tell you the names of their students' parents, siblings and pets.
They've been to most students' homes, and they've taught many of their relatives.
Both teachers live in the community, so they run into students at the grocery store and church. They've spent summers in beach chairs, watching babies grow into children who they later would teach.
That won't be the same, come this fall.
The Colleton County School Board decided it no longer could afford to keep the school open, and its chairman, John Barnes, said he wished he didn't have to make that call. It cost about $200,000 to run the school this year.
“If the world were perfect, there would be no boundary on the cost of educating kids,” he said. The reality is different, he said.
The board called it a “suspension” rather than closure, which he said keeps its option open for reviving the school.
Many feel uncertain about the immediate future. Parent Rev. Wey Camp doesn't know yet where his daughter will be next year. If the arrangement with Jane Edwards works out, that could be the most appealing, he said.
Three of his children have gone to Edisto Beach Elementary, and his youngest daughter, Julia, is there now.
He doesn't live on the island, but he pastors a church there and bought property in his children's name so they could enroll.
He understood the financial reasons for the board's decision, but he worries about what the absence of a school will mean for the community.
“Any family that has small children is going to have to think twice if they want their child to have an excellent education about moving out to Edisto,” he said.
Sanders has taught for 29 years. She's spent 21 of those at Edisto Beach Elementary, and she can't imagine sending her children anywhere else.
“No one is going to love these babies like we have,” she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.
All the students at Edisto Beach Elementary ran into the lunch room to watch teacher assistant Reed Hoerner (left) conduct a science balloon rocket experiment with the two third graders including Ella VanBakergem (right). There are only nine children enrolled at rural Edisto Beach Elementary School where students are split into two groups of younger students and older and are taught by two teachers and one teachers assistant Wednesday March 6, 2013. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)×
Flags representing the Gold Palmetto Awards line the hallways along with student work as Julia Camp and Ella VanBakergem change classroom to go art at Edisto Beach Elementary School Wednesday March 6, 2013. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)×
There are only nine children enrolled at rural Edisto Beach Elementary School, including (clockwise from left) Jaxon Scott-Kuhn, Logan Gressett, Hayden Mercer, Keefer Young, Gypsy Scott-Kuhn, Hannah Reyes, Julia Camp and Ella VanBakergem, who all share a table for lunch.×
Teacher Linda Hirschfeld works one-on-one with third-grader Ella VanBakergem who celebrates a correct answer as she learns about South Carolina history.×
The nine apples reflect the entire student body enrolled at rural Edisto Beach Elementary School, where students are split into two groups of younger and older students taught by two teachers and one assistant.×
Gypsy Scott-Kuhn, 11, is the second oldest student at the school.×