MOUNT PLEASANT -- Among all of Charleston County's new schools, none occupy as dramatic a site as Mount Pleasant Academy.

Tucked off Center Street in the Old Village, the property has a horseshoe of stately oaks at its entrance and a view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse out back.

Nevertheless, squeezing a brand-new building capable of housing 500 students on this skinny site posed a big challenge for Stubbs, Muldrow, Herin Architects and Craig Gaulden & Davis, Inc.

And they wouldn't have succeeded without some common sense help from the state and the town.

The School District might not have even tried to rebuild the elementary school here if Gov. Mark Sanford hadn't signed legislation seven years ago giving districts more flexibility in choosing schools sites --and waiving square footage rules.

For instance, the state previously required at least 10 acres for elementary school sites. The Mount Pleasant Academy has only 5.24 acres -- and little chance to buy more.

Bill Lewis, executive director of the Charleston County School District's building program, says Mount Pleasant Academy is one of more than a half dozen new or planned schools that have benefited -- or will benefit -- from this new law.

Those designing the new academy tried to take advantage of the site while helping it blend into the residential neighborhoods right next door, says architect Judy Dixon with Stubbs, Muldrow, Herin.

The building itself is divided into four or five segments, including a small traditional building fronting Center Street that recalls an old school house -- appropriate given that this public school traces its history back more than 200 years and because of its proximity to nearby homes.

"We knew this portion had to be sympathetic to the scale, materials and form of the neighborhood around it," Dixon says.

Behind it, in turn, are two classroom segments, a hallway that serves as the entry point for carpool students, and a cafeteria.

"You know how ship designers use every square inch of the boat? Well, we were like that, as well," Dixon says.

The school is using the town's property next door as an access point for cars and extra parking. It makes sense, because the ball fields will be empty while the school is being used --and vice versa. Dixon says the town's help, like the state law change, was critical, partly because state law requires different access points for school buses and cars.

Another major challenge here came with federal flood rules, which required tons of fill dirt to raise the site three to 5 feet. Much of this dirt is held in place by a new retaining wall where the site meets the ball fields, but toward the rear, there's instead a gentle slope from the school site down to the fields.

Dixon says she's glad the cafeteria overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway, and the design includes an amphitheater as the property gradually steps down to the playground and the distant marsh.

"This view is just fantastic," she says. "The district would never be able to afford a view like this if they didn't already have it."

But for all the school's charm, it's hard not to be struck more with the ornamentation provided by more than 100 colorful children's bicycles parked on the lawn just outside -- bikes that show just what a neighborhood school it is.

"This is the story," says Dixon, whose son's bike is among them. "This is your picture."

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.