HOLLYWOOD - Student self-assessments aren't the norm in most schools, but they are at Lowcountry Leadership Charter.
A classroom of first-graders reflected Monday on what they liked most about their class and what they found to be most difficult. One girl scrawled that she liked math because she knows subtraction and it's fun. She didn't like science, she wrote, because the experiments are hard.
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Lowcountry Leadership Charter opened in September for about 400 students in grades K-9.
Forty-five percent of its students are low-income.
Twenty-five percent of its students are minorities.
Most classes have about 20 students to one teacher.
Sixth- through ninth-graders have laptops, and third- through fifth-graders share two laptops for every student.
The school uses a digital curriculum for some instruction, which means teachers use the Internet to deliver some lessons.
Because the school has its charter through the South Carolina Public Charter School District, officials said they receive 36 percent less in funding than charter schools that were approved by local school boards. The school is trying to make up for the difference with fundraising.
"It's about being more aware of their learning, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses," said Principal Mache Larkin as she surveyed the group. The exercise helps them to better know themselves and their interests, she said.
Creating this kind of student-centered learning environment is a point of emphasis for the new charter school that opened this school year. Lowcountry Leadership Charter was the only new public school to open in the Lowcountry this fall, and it had a less than ideal start.
The charter school is leasing the former St. Paul's Academy building, a shuttered private school, but a roughly $6.5 million renovation and addition weren't finished in August.
That forced the charter school to open in a church building more than three weeks later than the rest of Charleston County schools, and the school moved two days after that into the former Schroder Middle School building. They stayed there until early December, when their new building was ready.
"After a week, it was like we'd been here a long time," Larkin said. "It's like we hadn't been anywhere else."
The school will celebrate another milestone this week with an official ribbon cutting, although some construction still isn't finished. The school's cafeteria hasn't been approved for use by the state, so the school has made accommodations, bringing in lunches from nearby restaurants and grocery stores.
Although this year's changes and moves posed a challenge for teachers and students, it hasn't caused the K-9 grades school to drop its enrollment of about 400 or lose its academic focus. The school plans to expand to grade 12, as well as add on to its building, in coming years.
"It's just another part of our story," Larkin said.
The school's classrooms don't have traditional desks. Instead, each room has tables where four or five students sit. The furniture is purposeful and conducive to the school's project-based learning approach, which means more group projects among students.
Eighth-grader Craig Brown said he likes the school's focus on cooperation and group work. Brown, who lives in nearby Stono Ferry, transferred to the charter school from School of the Arts, the county's flagship arts magnet middle and high school.
The charter school is closer to where he lives, and he said the smaller setting makes him feel as if he could get extra help if he needed it. School of the Arts overwhelmed him with assignments; this school is challenging but "you're not always doing stuff," Brown said.
"I feel like I've learned more here," he said.
Heather Priester teaches sixth- and seventh-grade English/language arts, and her daughter is enrolled in first grade. Priester taught at School of the Arts last year, and she decided to make the switch because of the opportunity to teach at the same school where her three children could attend.
She's also a fan of its focus on project-based learning, and she sees it as a way to better engage students. It gives students more freedom and the ability to explore topics that interest them, she said.
"It's a way for them to get more hands-on," Priester said. "I feel like they remember it (better); the things you create are the things you remember."
She sees the school's positive influence on her daughter, who she said is thinking more for herself and becoming more of a leader.
Rather than homework, students have "learning extensions," which can take the form of a range of activities, from after-school sports to a short journal entry reflecting on the day. It's less about repetition and creating stress for families, and it's more about finding ways to create a strong family feeling and connection to students' education, Larkin said.
Eighth-grader Vince Bodison said he likes not having as much homework. He's not sure whether he'll continue at its high school, but he said he's been happy this year.
"They make it a great school," he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
Second-graders Talyn Savage (from front left, clockwise), Troy Sanders, Evan Whiteside, Kendall Crook, Clara Bowman and Hagan Smith work on division problems at Lowcountry Leadership Charter. Many students were dressed for Camo Day as part of Spirit Week.×
Ninth-graders Zach Sweeney and Trevon Anderson play basketball in the gym at Lowcountry Leadership Charter.×
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