Relocate. Rebuild. Return.
That was the promise made to the community three years ago when Charleston County school leaders discovered serious seismic deficiencies at five of their schools.
Three of those five — Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive Academy and Memminger Elementary — will welcome students back to school Wednesday in brand new facilities. The Post and Courier toured those sites, as well as the new Montessori Community School, to get a sneak peak before students return.
A full-size gym probably isn’t what you’d expect to see on the second floor of the new Buist Academy, but it’s there, sitting right on top of the library.
The obvious concern about noise from bouncing balls and running feet meant extra attention to sound-proofing it as much as possible. That’s why the gym floor is on springs, floating above concrete slabs.
Jump on the floor, and it moves.
“It’s an intense system, but our other option was buy more land, and that was cost-prohibitive,” said Margie Longshore, the project’s architect.
The reason the gym couldn’t be on the first floor involves state safety guidelines involving children in grades K-2, who are supposed to be able to get outside the building quickly in case of fire.
That was one of the challenges in designing the new campus on a tight downtown site, and those involved are pleased with the result. Longshore liked the view it affords occupants, and Principal Shawntay White already can envision school plays happening in the space.
The gym is in the new portion of the building; the school’s 1921 building was preserved and brought up to seismic codes. Some of its walls are about 2 feet thick.
The district worked closely with the city to ensure that the building’s exterior mimicked that of the original structure. Longshore tried to incorporate that historic feel throughout the building, so exposed brick remains visible and beadboard lines some hallways.
White said she’s glad to have new windows that increase natural light, and she expects it to positively affect the way students and teachers feel about being there. Teachers also have been buzzing about being back downtown so they can take walking field trips.
“We’re just excited to be back home,” she said. “The location is fabulous.”
The school’s previous building had one computer lab that was shared among all students. The new one has three labs, and all students will be receiving iPads.
Other spaces that previously were cramped, such as the nurse’s clinic and administrative offices, have been expanded, and the school still had room for an outdoor playground and basketball court.
Both the original and new building, which are connected, are elevated because of flood concerns, and the ground floor media center’s windows will have flood panels to prevent water intrusion during a major hurricane.
Construction on the Gaillard Auditorium next door may present a traffic challenge in coming months, but school officials have been meeting with city and police to talk about plans for dismissal and arrival. Their top priority is keeping students safe, they said.
“We’re just so excited about everything,” White said.
Teacher Jodi Gibson’s new class of 3-year-olds could foreshadow the changes to come at downtown Memminger Elementary.
The 20-year teacher typically has classes that are high-poverty and almost exclusively made of black students. This year, only about half of her students will fall into that category.
“It’s a much more diverse class,” she said.
Principal Teresa Nowlin knows many downtown residents who live near the campus have chosen schools elsewhere, and she’s hopeful that its new focus – establishing an International Baccalaureate program – and new building bring more of them back to the school.
“We have a top-notch, technology-filled, modern place for children on the peninsula to come to learn and become global leaders of tomorrow,” Nowlin said.
The new Memminger Elementary occupies a campus with a history dating to the 1850s when it once housed a school to train white teachers. Part of its building is in the footprint of that original structure, and some of its features, such as a cupola, were included to pay homage to it.
The school’s entry hallway has floor-to-ceiling windows leading to a grand staircase and atrium that Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer who oversees building projects, called one of the most beautiful in the district.
A wall that once separated the school from the surrounding neighborhood made it difficult to see the campus. That barrier has been lowered, and Lewis said it opens the school up to the community and its neighbors and still keeps students safe.
The school’s close proximity to the College of Charleston campus has been mutually beneficial in the past, and Nowlin said that relationship will be revived with its return downtown. College professors plan to teach some college courses on campus, and its students will work with those in the elementary school. The college also may help it add a teacher of Mandarin Chinese.
Classroom windows will give students generous views of downtown’s church steeples and historic homes. Students had a hand in creating part of the new campus; they did drawings that now appear on bathroom tiles.
Another advantage of the new building is its abundance of gathering spaces. The IB program has intense staff training requirements, and the school has spots where that work can happen, Nowlin said.
“There are all sorts of places in here for people to get together to learn,” she said.
Gibson said she’s never taught in a new building, and she’s excited to have a clean room with plenty of space.
“It’s a remarkable change,” she said. “It’s completely different but it still feels like home.”
Charleston Progressive Academy
The city’s desire to preserve the school’s historic building set the stage for a complex project that included extensive remodeling, selective demolition and new construction.
That’s also one of the reasons the school’s new building housing its media center, multi-purpose, music and art rooms won’t open until Oct. 28.
The core academic classrooms are finished, and Charleston Progressive will kick of the new school year in a renovated building. The shell of the building was all that remained after workers reinforced its foundation to meet seismic codes.
“It’s really more than I hoped it would be,” said Principal Wanda Wright-Sheats.
The city wanted to preserve the 1955 historic Courtenay building because it was one of the city’s first international-style structures designed by a well-known architect, Augustus Constantine. The school’s former entryway still will be visible from Meeting Street.
Its new entrance faces Wragg Square and gives the school more control over who enters the building. That, combined with the hurricane-proof windows and increased visibility, makes the building a safer place to be, Wright-Sheats said.
The school’s classrooms are clustered by grades, and some child development and kindergarten spaces nearly doubled in size. The carpeted floors and bigger rooms give teachers flexibility in the way they run their classrooms, and Wright-Sheats said those features will help them tailor instruction to students’ needs.
“These rooms are huge,” she said. “We were cramped, cramped, cramped.”
Like all schools in this building program, Charleston Progressive classrooms have a teaching wall that includes a SmartBoard, white boards, book shelves and plenty of storage areas. The furniture piece was developed by teachers and education technology staff specifically for the district.
The school’s covered walkways have been enclosed and feature large windows, and Wright-Sheats expects students’ activities to spill out of classrooms and onto carpeted hallways.
“It’s a whole different feel,” she said.
A multi-purpose room has two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows that provide views into the surrounding downtown neighborhood, and a computer lab will have laptops that can be moved to different classrooms.
The school has adopted Franklin Covey’s leadership training philosophy, and the goal is to involve students in 60 percent of their learning and school management. That means students will assume more leadership responsibilities, such as giving tours and keeping notebooks with their test scores.
The new building, along with its renewed focus on leadership, has Wright-Sheats expecting spots in the school to fill up. She said she’s doing all she can to help teachers prepare for Wednesday.
“We’re trying to get boxes unpacked and meet the needs of teachers so they can start out teaching on Day 1,” she said.
Montessori Community School
This popular Montessori school in West Ashley has been in such high demand that more of its students were in mobile units than in a building.
That will change this year as the school starts a new chapter in its 24-year history with a building designed specifically for its needs.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to be together under one roof in a long time,” said Principal Kim Hay.
The project is a significant one locally and statewide; it’s the first non-charter public Montessori school that’s been built by a school district, Lewis said.
The Montessori philosophy is reflected throughout the building, and project architect Michael Nixon said he wanted it to also be a teaching tool for students.
The building’s key features include exposed wooden posts and beams, which are atypical for schools. Hay embraced the idea of using natural materials, as well as allowing in as much natural light as possible.
The art teacher helped design a dove for the floor near the school’s entrance with a modified quote from Maria Montessori, and Hay said it helps set a peaceful tone for the building. That theme is carried throughout the building with an earthy color palette.
Nixon ensured the three grand oak trees on the school’s campus were preserved, and the building was constructed around and celebrates their beauty, he said. Classrooms and windows were deliberately placed throughout the building to provide views of the large trees, with a particularly striking view in its cozy “reading room.”
Montessori schools are different from traditional ones in that they emphasize hands-on, independent learning. Students have a daily work plan and can choose the order and method in which they accomplish those goals. They don’t have assigned desks and instead move freely about the classroom.
The school has special furniture and materials for its lessons, and students are expected to be able to access those as needed without an adults’ help. The new resources will allow students to do more reading and more intensive math lessons.
“The environment is one of the most important things in a Montessori class,” Hay said. “If you get the environment right, the children can work.”
The school’s previous campus was made of one small building for classrooms and nine mobile units, which didn’t have a covered walkway.
The school’s middle grades are separated from the rest of the building with a door, and it’s a distinct, more grown-up space.
“The whole school is beautiful, but I think these rooms are stunning,” Hay said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
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