Four Charleston County downtown schools with seismic problems scheduled to be finished on time
Charleston Progressive Academy Principal Wanda Wright-Sheats turned away more than 30 students this year for the school’s 4-year-old program because its temporary site didn’t have space for them.
When the countywide magnet school returns to its new downtown home in the fall of 2013, it’ll have more room to grow its early childhood education program and add one additional pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classs.
It’s one of the biggest reasons why Wright-Sheats can’t wait for construction to be finished; expanding that program will make the school stronger overall, she said.
“My philosophy is if I can get them at 4 and keep them through sixth grade, we can build a strong educational foundation,” Wright-Sheats said. “It all starts with early childhood education.”
Charleston Progressive Academy is one of four downtown schools entering its final year of construction, and district officials are optimistic they’ll make good on their word to return students by the start of the 2013-14 school year.
The construction projects were put on a fast track, and they’ll be finished in nearly half the time it typically takes.
“This is a burning bridge approach; there’s no turning back,” said Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operations officer. “But that’s kept us moving at this very rapid speed. The city, the school board and everybody has operated with that sense of urgency.”
School officials moved students out of four downtown schools — Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive Academy, Memminger Elementary and James Simons Elementary — and Sullivan’s Island Elementary in the summer of 2010. Engineering reports showed the buildings would fail in a serious earthquake, and district leaders resolved to address the situation as quickly as possible.
Voters approved a 1 percent sales tax that fall that provided the needed construction money, and work on the downtown schools has been moving forward since then. The Sullivan’s Island Elementary has run into community opposition, and that completion date has been pushed back until the spring of 2014.
Construction workers haven’t had difficulties boosting the schools’ seismic stability, although it has been noisy and caused vibrations in surrounding neighborhoods, Lewis said. They’ve worked with neighborhoods to explain the situation, and the community has been exceptional in saying, “OK, we recognize it’s going to be done. Let’s get it done,” he said.
Each school is at a slightly different stage in its construction, and some of the current buildings at each site will be preserved. The total cost for the four schools is about $1.5 million under its $107.3 million budget.
Work to strengthen the foundation is happening at Memminger Elementary and Buist Academy. The James Simons Elementary building was so “dysfunctional” that the entire structure couldn’t be saved, but they are keeping three sides of its façade. Massive steel beams are being moved to stabilize those walls for the remaining construction work.
Estimates for work at Charleston Progressive came in over budget, so officials are working on cost savings now. Its final construction contract has been awarded.
The former Rivers Middle School building also is being rebuilt, and it’s slated to be finished by January. The Charleston Charter School for Math & Science and a new slate of career and technical education programs, Lowcountry Tech, will use that space.
For Charleston Progressive, Wright-Sheats said construction teams have updated the school monthly on its progress, and parents have sat in on those meetings. She’s kept the rest of the school updated through PTA meetings, and she said she’s optimistic the work will be finished by next year.
The school will be adding an additional fourth-grade class this year, and the new building will enable it to expand its fifth- and sixth-grades, too. Both of those grades only have one class, and both have waiting lists.
“We’re excited,” she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.