BY NANCY J. McGINLEY

District 1 is a valued part of the Charleston County School District, and I am proud to be its superintendent. For far too long, the residents of Awendaw and McClellanville have seen their student population decline due not only to the reduction in the population of school age students, but also to the large number of students in that area who opt to travel to Mount Pleasant and elsewhere to attend school.

For example, two years ago, St. James-Santee Elementary had 19 sixth graders. Today, just 10 students comprise the eighth grade at Lincoln Middle High School.

A Dec. 7, 2012 Post and Courier article summarized the school board workshop on under-enrolled schools. Three possible options were identified for District 1’s 403 students:

1) Consolidate to one pre-K to 12 school, 2) offer core academic classes at Lincoln High but send students to Wando High for career and technology education courses, while moving middle school students to St. James-Santee Elementary; or 3) make Lincoln High a charter school and open enrollment to neighboring counties.

The article also reported: “McGinley said her staff will look at options to determine feasibility, cost and possible ramifications. The board would make the final call on whether and when to move forward with any suggestion. Her top concerns are whether the changes would provide a better academic environment, result in more equitable per pupil funding, increase program offerings and capture more neighborhood students ... ”

On Jan. 28, the Charleston County Board of Trustees approved a recommendation to authorize a grade change at St. James-Santee Elementary School. They will keep their current sixth grade students and become a pre-K to grade 7 school in 2013-14. By the 2014-15 school year, St. James-Santee will serve grades pre-K to grade 8 and Lincoln will be a four year high school.

Our rationale for the change is that it will enable us to create sustained progress and a more academically rigorous middle grades program. St. James-Santee Principal Joe Sampson is a former middle school administrator who has the passion to lead this program.

Our data indicate that while CCSD has been improving and moving to a rating of “Good” on the state report card, Lincoln Middle School has continued to decline. Out of 84 schools in our district, only eight received a rating of “At Risk” in 2012. Lincoln Middle School received an “At Risk” rating on both the “Absolute” and “Growth” scores. Also, as mentioned above, the Lincoln middle grades program experiences difficulty maintaining enrollment.

Dwindling numbers drive up the cost of education when we consider “per pupil” expenditures. The “per pupil” expenditure at Lincoln is already $21,939 compared to $6,834 at Wando High School. We accept the reality that small rural schools cost more to operate, but we must continually strive to improve program quality for our students.

Last year, after months of community input, our board adopted ambitious achievement goals under the Vision 2016 plan.

Unless we accelerate progress in District 1, students will not reach those goals. I believe a middle grades program at St. James-Santee is the best way to reverse the academic decline and enrollment attrition.

By eliminating the transition from elementary to middle, we are confident we will retain more students in their local community school rather than continuing the exodus into middle schools in other communities.

As I stated publicly at the Feb. 25 board meeting, I believe there are creative ways to keep grades 9-12 at Lincoln High School and do it in a manner that is fair to all county taxpayers and students. I do not recommend closing Lincoln High School.

One option I would like to introduce is operating Lincoln as a campus offering core academic courses only. Students would be transported by the district to the Advanced Studies Center at Wando for Career and Technology Education courses in the morning.

This state-of-the-art center opens in August 2014. Mobile technology would provide our students with extended study time during travel. Students could take advantage of the array of courses offered at the Advanced Studies Center and still receive their high school diploma from their community high school.

Over the next year I recommend that this option be considered by a School/Community Task Force. A replacement high school could be located at the former McClellanville Middle School site, or it could be rebuilt at another location closer to Awendaw. The valuable property where Lincoln currently stands could be transformed into a recreational facility for community members of all ages in the McClellanville area.

While we try to build schools for no less than 500, we remain sensitive to the needs of our rural communities. After taking all factors into consideration, my recommendation goes to the school board, who has the authority to agree with or modify my educational and fiscal advice.

I respect their input and will always endeavor to accomplish what they ultimately decide. But, I will also continue to voice and promote what I believe serves both the students and taxpayers in our community.

I believe in the creative option I propose, and it will take a dedicated team of parents, community leaders, and educators working together to accomplish it.

Without full cooperation the plan will not be successful.

All of our students need the adults in the community to work together to help prepare them for a better future.

Dr. Nancy J. McGinley is superintendent of the Charleston County School District.