MOUNT PLEASANT — Mobile units have been the temporary fix for schools with too many students, but Charleston County officials have unveiled a new three-part proposal to alleviate overcrowding in this growing community.
Officials in neighboring school districts of Berkeley and Dorchester 2 also have plans to build and renovate schools to alleviate overcrowding:In Dorchester 2: Plans call for four new schools; 19 of the district’s 22 schools are at or above capacity. The cost for those new buildings, as well as construction of a new aquatic center and the renovations to 10 other schools, will be $179 million, which voters have approved. The district will open three new elementary schools in August 2015 and the middle school in August 2016.In Berkeley County: The district will add five new schools; 15 of its 41 are overcrowded. That new construction, as well as the renovation of 29 others, will cost $198 million. One new school will open each year starting in 2015.
District leaders are considering:
Establishing a new partnership with East Cooper Montessori Charter that would allow the school to use the former Laing Middle School building, increase its enrollment and provide a “lab” environment to help the district spread Montessori across the county.
Creating a new, 500-student magnet school solely for Mount Pleasant students in the former Whitesides Elementary School building.
Increasing the capacity for the new Laing Middle and Jennie Moore Elementary School buildings by 300 students each so the new schools each would serve 1,200 students.
The three-prong strategy could add as many as 1,350 seats for students within the next couple years at what district leaders say is a minimal expense. It’s too early to calculate the cost, but it would exceed $10 million.
“Our goal is to bring on new seats in East Cooper as quickly as possible with the least disruption to families as possible,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
The District 2 (Mount Pleasant) Constituent School Board has been talking about rezoning schools to give relief to those with too many students. If approved, the district’s proposal could result in a postponement of that rezoning until 2015.
The county school board could vote on two of its ideas — the magnet school and the increased size of Jennie Moore and Laing — at its June 10 meeting.
About 500 students are on waiting lists for Montessori classes across the district, and 100 of those students want to go to East Cooper Montessori Charter in the I’On neighborhood in Mount Pleasant.
The excellent-rated school enrolls 258 first- through eighth-graders from across the county, and it has a strong base of parent and community support. The school raised more than $1 million to help it build and open in 2007 a 14,000-square-foot school.
Still, that building hasn’t been big enough to meet community demand, which has blocked the school from growing any further. The school has mobile units, and it doesn’t have a gym, cafeteria or media center.
McGinley and the school’s principal, Jody Swanigan, have been in “creative brainstorming conversations” for a few months, and they proposed on Thursday a new partnership that would enable the charter school to use the former Laing Middle School building on U.S. Highway 17.
The arrangement would provide more seats for Montessori students in Mount Pleasant and elsewhere in the district. Montessori education is a teaching philosophy that encourages students to work independently; students don’t have desks and do more individual, hands-on lessons.
The district would pay to renovate Laing to be appropriate for Montessori classes, which are bigger than traditional rooms, and that cost was unknown. Construction work to renovate the former Whitesides Elementary School building was more than $2.5 million, and the former Laing Middle building is larger.
The charter school would lease the space at a reduced rate, and it would have room to possibly double its enrollment over time. The school also would be considered a “lab” for the district, which means it would be used as a model and would train teachers and leaders for other district Montessori programs.
The school would host a training vendor, which would save nearby Montessori educators the cost of traveling elsewhere for Montessori certification.
The charter school could open in the new space as soon as August 2014. Charter schools are public schools that are governed by boards of parents and community members. They follow state laws but not school district mandates.
Swanigan emphasized that this idea was in its early stages, and many issues still need to be discussed. She said she wants to do this because she loves Montessori education and wants to ensure high-quality offerings across the district.
“The reason (to do this) is simple,” she told the county school board. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The county school board would have to sign off on the proposal, and the four members who listened to the presentation wanted to hear more, such as specific cost estimates.
Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats called it a “great idea,” and said she wanted any contract to explain why the district was entering into this kind of deal with this charter school versus others.
New magnet school
The school district doesn’t have a plan to build a new elementary school in Mount Pleasant through 2016. The next one to come online likely would be in 2018 in the Carolina Park community.
To ease the load at existing elementary schools, McGinley proposed creating a new magnet school that would open in August 2014 in the former Whitesides Elementary building.
That building has undergone more than $2 million in renovations, and Sullivan’s Island Elementary is using the space now.
If the board approves the concept, the district would spend the upcoming school year working with the community to figure out what the focus of this new school would be. If it’s an attractive theme, McGinley said parents would apply.
“The key here is community involvement and parent engagement,” said board Vice Chairman Craig Ascue. “It’s finding out what they want and then going with it.”
The district expects the school would offer grades K-5 and could enroll 500 students. Students would have to apply to be selected, and each elementary school in Mount Pleasant would be allotted seats in proportion to the total number of Mount Pleasant students served.
Lewis said the Whitesides building could be used for at least another 10 years. School board member Elizabeth Moffly said the district needs space for students in the northern part of Mount Pleasant, and McGinley said she agrees, but the district doesn’t have any unused school buildings in that area. It would be a minimal cost to get the building and program ready, she said.
The new buildings for Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle both are slated to open in the fall of 2015 and each will serve 900 students. The common areas in those buildings, such as the cafeteria, kitchen and media center, have been designed for a 1,200-student campus, because district leaders knew at some point the schools would have to grow to that size.
The new proposal would be increasing the classroom spaces in each building to serve 1,200 students.
“We always knew we’d have to (expand), it was just a matter of when,” said Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer. “The ‘when’ got sooner because the schools are so good and the economy has been so tough that more and more people have sent their kids to our schools. That just accelerated the rate of growth. It’s a great problem to have.”
The combined cost of the Jennie Moore and Laing Middle projects is $72.5 million, and the 600 additional seats would cost $8.5 million.
Officials said they could pay for that with savings from the previous building program, as well as savings on the new Center for Advanced Studies at the Wando High School campus.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.
A rotation method is used to move students in and out of the lunch room at the crowded Laurel Hill Primary in Mount Pleasant. The town’s schools are seriously overcrowded, and Charleston County school leaders have ideas that will spread out students and delay rezoning until 2015.×
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