Elena Tuerk wouldn’t enroll her 3-year-old at James Simons Elementary until the fall of 2014, but she still is worried about whether the new building will be finished by the first day of school this fall. The school is being rebuilt because of seismic deficiencies.
If it’s not, it could discourage some of her neighbors from enrolling their children, and that could affect what her family does the following year.
“I want a sense of community,” said Tuerk, a downtown resident.
Members of the Charleston County School Board are feeling that same sense of urgency to do everything they can to wrap up construction on the new building by the start of the next school year. During a special meeting called Thursday, the board unanimously approved an undisclosed amount of money to accelerate construction work on James Simons Elementary.
District officials wouldn’t say how much exactly because they have to negotiate with the contractor on how much the extra work would cost, but they said it falls within the project’s overall $26.9 million budget.
“If it’s not going over budget, let’s do everything in our power to open the school on time,” said board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats.
The additional funds will help pay overtime for the site’s more than 100 workers, who will go from 50-hour work weeks to 60-hour weeks.
That still might not be enough to ensure that the building opens by Aug. 21, the first day of school.
The structure needs to be “dried in,” or completely enclosed with air circulating by June 11, and inclement weather could prevent workers from meeting that deadline.
The school could be ready by the start of the school year if workers do meet that June deadline. Workers then would work two shifts daily, and the board also signed off Thursday on money to cover that cost.
“We’ll be exhausted,” said Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer. “I’ve never seen a more concentrated, focused effort (by workers) to finish.”
If they don’t hit the June target, students would start the year at their temporary site, the former Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston, and move weeks later. Lewis said the latest that would be is October.
James Simons Elementary is one of four downtown schools that had seismic deficiencies and is being rebuilt. The county school board promised in 2010 that all four would be reopened by the start of the 2013-14 school year, and it is on track to make good on its promise with Buist Academy and Memminger Elementary.
Charleston Progressive Academy will start the new school year in its new downtown building, too, but it will be another month before some of its campus is finished. The district had to change the building’s design to be approved by the city’s Board of Architectural Review, and that delayed its completion date.
The core academic classrooms will be finished, but the art, media center and physical education rooms will take a bit longer.
James Simons Elementary has been running about six months behind the other projects because of community engagement. Officials put the building’s design on hold until parents decided on the school’s future program focus, Montessori. They have been trying to make up time since then.
The school enrolls about 200 students this year, but its enrollment is slated to roughly double by this fall. That’s largely because of its new Montessori program. All but one class in each grade will be Montessori; only five classes will be traditional. The school won’t have any non-Montessori pre-kindergarten through first-grade classes.
Montessori is a teaching philosophy that encourages students to work independently. Students learn in multi-age classrooms, and they don’t have an assigned desk. Guided by their teachers, students choose activities to learn subjects such as math and English.
The expansion of Montessori in some Charleston neighborhood schools has been controversial. The leadership of the Charleston NAACP spoke out earlier this year about efforts to convert Hursey Elementary in North Charleston to solely offering Montessori classes, saying the predominantly minority families who were enrolled in the school would be displaced if they wanted their children to receive a traditional education.
James Simons Elementary Principal Quenetta White said the school community will be elated to know they might start a new year in the new building.
“It is great that the school board is demonstrating that they are trying to do everything they can to get the building ready,” she said. “We don’t control the weather, so I truly understand that the builders are in a crunch.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.