Palmetto Scholars Academy can’t afford to hire companies to cut its grass, fix its plumbing or paint its walls.

The North Charleston charter school receives less funding per pupil than most other schools in the state, so it has to make its tight budget stretch as far as possible. Parents, faculty and students understand the state-created predicament and step up to fill in the gaps, whether that’s donating toilet paper or replacing classroom light bulbs.

That’s just one of the ways this small school is distinguishing itself from the crowd. Palmetto Scholars Academy is the state’s only charter school for gifted and talented students, and its mission is to push its students to achieve at the highest levels possible.

“It’s awesome,” said seventh-grader Chelsey Graham. “It just gives kids the things they need, and it doesn’t make anyone feel dumb.”

The school opened in the fall of 2010 on the former Navy base, where it leases space from Noisette.

It has worked quietly since then to create an identity and build a high-quality reputation. Its test scores are proof that it’s on its way.

The school was one of 10 in the tri-county area to receive a perfect 100 “A” under the new federal rating system, and it has been rated “excellent” by the state and received a Palmetto Gold Award.

A good fit

The school’s curriculum is designed for gifted and talented students, but students don’t have to meet any admissions criteria. Any South Carolina resident who applies will be accepted, unless there are more applicants than seats. In that case, the school holds a lottery; it has waiting lists for sixth and seventh grades.

Only about 60 percent of its roughly 280 students are identified as gifted and talented. Students are tested and interviewed after they are admitted, and school officials tell parents whether the school will be a good fit for their children’s abilities. Some withdraw their non-gifted students, while others leave them there and hope they rise to the rigorous expectations.

All the school’s classes are advanced, and the school’s on-grade-level English and math classes are one grade above what students traditionally would take.

Teachers are encouraged to use research-based lessons, hands-on activities and original source documents. They use the Socratic method during classroom discussions to promote critical thinking.

Kellye Voigt enrolled her son in the school’s inaugural sixth-grade class. She loved the way the school taught to the top kids, and her son “responded beautifully.”

She decided to leave her teaching job at a high-achieving suburban Dorchester 2 school for a spot at the North Charleston school, and she now teaches science and research.

Looking ahead

Palmetto Scholars Academy has its charter to operate through the state Public Charter School District, and that’s why it’s funding is lower than most other schools. Schools that receive permission to operate from the state district receive only state and federal money; they don’t get any local dollars.

A charter with the state district also has implications for its attendance zone — any student who lives in South Carolina can attend. That’s different than the other charter schools in Charleston County, which received their charters from the county school board and accept county residents only.

Palmetto Scholars Academy students come from across the Lowcountry, from Edisto Island to Summerville and Moncks Corner. The school doesn’t offer bus service, so many carpool.

A hunt for a spot to build a new school also is under way. The school is outgrowing its campus — nine of its classes are in the building while eight others are in mobile units — but it will have to figure out a way to pay for a new building. The school is preparing to kick off a fundraising campaign.

In the meantime, the school will continue to define itself. Some say it’s a place where free thinkers are valued and where what students wear is less important than who they are. Students say it’s a place where they can be themselves.

“You can’t be bullied for being smart because everyone here is,” said Graham, the seventh-grader.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at 937-5546.