Building a new James Simons Elementary

Program manager: Cumming Construction Management

Architect: Thomas & Denzinger Architects

Contractor: M.B. Kahn Construction

Square footage: 66,000

Project budget: $26.9 million

School capacity: 500

Student enrollment/grades: 262 children from age 3 to grade 6

School theme: Montessori

Interesting fact: The school has a third floor, but it's unfinished and unusable in its current state. Officials hope to grow the school's enrollment and to expand to seventh and eighth grades. When it does, they plan to finish construction and use the area for classrooms.

Source: Charleston County School District

Willis Weber felt confident that enrolling his 4-year-old son at James Simons Elementary School's temporary North Charleston campus this fall would be a good decision.

He and his wife knew the school soon would be moving back downtown and into a new building designed specifically for Montessori instruction. The Webers felt optimistic about its potential to offer a high-quality education on the peninsula.

"We couldn't be happier," Weber said while standing inside of the school's new multi-purpose room last week. "This is amazing."

James Simons Elementary wrapped up 2013 at the former Brentwood Middle School, and it will return from winter break and start 2014 in its new, permanent home on King Street.

James Simons was one of four downtown schools rebuilt after officials discovered serious seismic deficiencies in its structure. The three others - Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive Academy and Memminger Elementary - started this school year in their new buildings, but James Simons fell behind because of the process involved in choosing its Montessori focus.

Officials tried to speed up the process at James Simons, even dedicating additional funds to cover workers' overtime costs, but an especially rainy summer slowed them down. Principal Quenetta White and her faculty could have been in the building before January, but they agreed that one weekend wasn't enough time to make that move.

Parents and teachers alike seemed relieved last week that the school had taken those extra days to get ready for its new start.

"It just made so much sense once it was explained," Weber said. "We didn't want to switch (then). The waiting was well led."

Teachers have spent hours on weekends and after school setting up their new classrooms, and families toured the space during an open house last week. Teachers posed for a group picture outside the new building, and one later had tears in her eyes as she reflected on the beauty of the new site.

Primary teacher TeRaya Dingle said the classrooms are more spacious than those at Brentwood, and that means students will be able to more easily move around the room without interrupting one another.

"I can't wait to get in here," she said. "Having the space should be a big help for them."

Additional space is one component needed for Montessori instruction, which 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 different subjects.

James Simons is in its first year of offering Montessori instruction, and most of its classes are Montessori. Traditional classrooms are being phased out. The building's former classrooms couldn't have been modernized to be roomy enough for Montessori lessons, and that was one of the reasons the district couldn't follow the city's wishes of renovating and preserving the entire original 1919 building.

Other issues included its seismic instability and the need to raise the entire site for flood reasons.

The compromise was preserving the original front façade of the structure facing Moultrie Street, and that was the most difficult part of any project the district has attempted, said Bill Lewis, the district's chief operating officer who oversees its building program.

Workers had to add reinforcements underneath and along the entire wall, and all of that took about six months and cost $3.8 million. The building's new front entrance faces King Street.

"This has been one of the hardest jobs ... but we are certainly glad we did it," Lewis said. "James Simons is a key part of history of public education in Charleston."

James Simons was among the first schools in the district to be desegregated, in 1963, and a historical marker commemorating that event is visible through some classroom windows. That side of the building is White's favorite.

"They endured and paved the way," White said while gazing at the marker through a window. "(Without them), I wouldn't be principal, only because of the color of my skin."

Nearly 100 percent of the school's students have been high-poverty and black, but the new Montessori focus and building are changing its demographics. This year, about 25 percent of its students aren't black.

White said she's thankful to be a part of the school as it reunites the neighborhood and brings back its children.

"James Simons is going to be a reflection of the community," she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.