MOUNT PLEASANT - A new public magnet school for East Cooper's academically advanced elementary-aged children could open as soon as August.
A task force of parents and residents has recommended that the new school be modeled after downtown Buist Academy, a high-achieving magnet school with admissions criteria.
The new Mount Pleasant magnet school would be housed at the former Whitesides Elementary, which is being used this year by Sullivan's Island Elementary. The space will be vacant by this summer.
The proposal has been presented to the Charleston County School Board's strategic education committee, and the board's audit and finance committee will evaluate the plan on Monday. District officials hope the full board will consider and approve the plan at its Feb. 10 meeting so they can hire a principal and teachers and begin to enroll students.
"It's a mammoth undertaking," said Associate Superintendent Terri Nichols, who oversees 27 elementary schools, including those in Mount Pleasant. "I think we can do it, but every day that goes by makes me nervous from a capacity standpoint. . I think we're up for it and we have smart people, but at some point it gets to be 'We don't have enough time.'"
The new school would open with about 250 students in first- through fifth-grades, and it would add kindergarten and sixth grade in 2015. It would expand by one grade per year until it reached eighth grade. Each grade would have two classes, and class sizes would be capped at 25 students.
Students would have to meet the same kind of admissions requirements as Buist Academy, such as scoring at the 75th percentile, having a certain grade point average and obtaining teacher recommendations. The school would not have an admissions exam.
Qualified students would go into a lottery to be selected, and only Mount Pleasant students would be eligible to attend.
"The biggest thing is that they're going to move at a more rapid pace, and probably put a little more depth into the lessons," Nichols said.
Although Buist is an International Baccalaureate school, the new Mount Pleasant magnet school would not open as an IB site. That's an option that could be considered in the future, Nichols said. Buist didn't start as an IB school, and its school foundation has funded the teacher training and fees associated with becoming an authorized school.
Staffing for the new East Cooper school would cost an estimated $1.6 million, and the school would have other one-time start-up costs.
The county school board has been supportive of a new magnet school, which they hope will relieve over-crowding in other East Cooper schools.
Craig Ascue, the school board member who lives in Mount Pleasant, said he's supportive of the idea, but he worries that the school might steal the brightest students from the community's other neighborhood schools. He said he's heard that concern from principals, so his priority would be maintaining a good balance of students at the remaining community schools.
"There's still a lot of details to work out," he said. "We don't want to rob their student bodies and teacher points, but at the same time, we want to give schools in north Mount Pleasant relief. It's a tough balance."
Lisa Short is a parent who served on the task force that recommended an advanced studies school. She said the community's parents value academics and want schools to give their children what they need. Despite Mount Pleasant's excellent-rated schools, many families end up enrolling in Buist Academy or private schools because they think their children will get a better education, she said.
A magnet school focused on academically advanced students would be a big draw for parents, and she said she would've considered it for her children had it existed when they were in elementary school.
"This would be a great option," she said. "We need all the seats over here that we can get."
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
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