Renovated Rivers Middle School campus opens to charter school, plans to start new Lowcountry Tech program later this month
For Jandi Withrow, teaching in a mobile classroom meant thinking through the logistics of every experiment to make it work.
Locked doors separate the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science from the new Lowcountry Tech Academy, and students in one will not be able to access the other from the building’s interior. The school and program have separate exterior entrances.
The building’s interior was gutted so few parts of the original structure remain. One of those original features are the terrazzo floors throughout the building. Some of the wood floors from the auditorium also are intact; other pieces were repurposed as a counter in the charter school’s main office.
The school district is pilot-testing two features in the new building: water fountains that allow students to fill water bottles and count how many plastic bottles they save, as well as a new phone system that operates through the Internet rather than a traditional landline.
One of the most noticeable changes in the building is its large windows. The windows look the same as those in the original building, but they meet today’s safety codes for hurricanes and energy efficiency.
Most Lowcountry Tech classrooms are significantly larger than typical classrooms; the rooms split the space between a full set of classroom computers and a full set of traditional student desks.
Charleston County School District, Heery International
For example, a lack of running water tacked time onto lessons because students had to leave class to fill containers or wash their hands.
Although the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science teacher never let the shortcomings of her environment dictate her lessons, Withrow no longer will have to figure out how to overcome those hurdles since she’s moved into the renovated Rivers Middle School building.
“It’s going to make my life easier,” she said while standing in her new lab. “We’re coming from the 1800s back into the 21st century. It’s amazing.”
Withrow was among the teachers and students who brought new life into the downtown building last week for the first time since 2005. The two-story, 1938 structure has undergone a $25 million renovation since then, and that included a comprehensive seismic renovation to make it stronger and safer.
The school district preserved and restored as much of the building’s historical exterior as it could while transforming the interior into a state-of-the art school.
“This is one of the best projects we’ve ever done,” said Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer. “It was worth the battle to do it right.”
A controversial space
Use of the Rivers building has become one of the district’s most controversial and volatile issues. Although the school board agreed in 2007 for the charter school to share the space with a new program, Lowcountry Tech Academy, the school board talked as recently as November about that agreement and whether it should be changed.
The charter school last week moved its roughly 200 high school students and teachers into the space, and the hallways buzzed with excitement Friday.
Junior Kennedy Duncan has attended the school since seventh grade. She said she and her classmates always hoped the building would be finished on time (as it was), but doubts arose, she said. Other than physical education in the gym, the charter school’s classes were held in mobile units.
“Now that it’s finally here, it’s amazing,” she said.
Duncan said she couldn’t keep herself from spending part of one class staring out the building’s large windows.
“I’m just taking it all in,” she said.
Charter school Principal Michael Stagliano said the new building is making it easier for his teachers to share learning materials and talk to one another. Before now, they would have to go to different mobile units, rather than walk down the hall.
“Everything is expedited and seamless,” he said. “It’s going to help immensely with school climate.”
The charter school’s remaining roughly 260 middle school students still are housed in mobile units and will remain in those indefinitely.
The charter school is sharing the building in a 60-40 split with Lowcountry Tech, a new program open to students from across the county. Students will enroll in their neighborhood schools and take specific career electives at Lowcountry Tech.
Classes at Lowcountry Tech will start Jan. 22, the beginning of second semester. The program initially will offer three courses — networking, keyboarding/computer applications and graphic communications — and those classes will increase in number and type in time. The program’s offerings will fall under the broader areas of green technology and energy, information technology, cybersecurity, and health informatics.
About 160 students from five different schools have signed up for courses this spring, and district officials are working on a number of projects and partnerships to boost the program.
“This is a good start for us,” said Lou Martin, the district’s associate superintendent for middle and high schools. “We have lots of irons in the fire that are going to end up expanding the original concept of Lowcountry Tech.”
None of the students who have signed up for Lowcountry Tech attend the charter school. Stagliano said his students’ schedules already were set, but he expected students to enroll in the program this fall.
Sarah Earle, a National Board Certified Teacher who previously worked in the district’s teacher-quality office, has been hired as the program’s interim assistant principal. She will manage the day-to-day program operations. Two teachers have been hired, and a third will be transferred from another district school, Martin said.
“We’re building the staff as well as building the program,” he said.