If you go

What: Open houses on the merged West Ashley and St. Andrew's middle schools

When: 4-6 p.m. Sunday and May 4

Where: West Ashley Middle School, 1776 William Kennerty Drive

When Rhonda Hills sat down with a group of school officials and community representatives last year to discuss ways to improve West Ashley and St. Andrew's middle schools, their goal was simple - bring back more students.

That's because with more and more students zoned for those schools opting to attend other schools, less funding, fewer teachers and fewer courses were available.

"Both of the schools were losing enrollment and we needed to do something," Hills said.

Their recommendation - merge the two schools to capitalize on larger enrollment to get more funding for classes and teachers.

Earlier this year, the school board approved a plan to merge West Ashley and St. Andrew's middle schools as a way to deal with dwindling enrollment.

Now plans to merge the two schools in the fall are beginning to take shape as administrators work to launch new academic programs to draw students back to their neighborhood public middle school.

Parents and students can learn more about the new curriculum, staffing and enrollment policies at two open houses on the next two Sundays. The first will provide information to parents of rising sixth-graders regarding a new advanced studies magnet program at the merged school. The second will provide information for rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders enrolling in the school's traditional program.

The two schools will merge for the 2014-15 school year and will be located at West Ashley Middle. The school district has budgeted $3.4 million to make improvements to the school building over the next three years. Improvements will include converting school district offices back into classrooms as well as interior and exterior cosmetic changes.

Enhanced academics

The new school will provide an advanced studies magnet program starting with about 100 sixth-graders in the fall. The program will add a grade each school year until the program encompasses grades 6-8. To qualify for the magnet program, students must have a minimum GPA of 3.0 and score in the top 75 percent or above in standardized tests for reading and math. Students zoned for West Ashley schools will get first priority for acceptance in the magnet program.

Other benefits to merging the schools include additional course offerings, such as foreign language, drama and chorus, none of which are currently offered at either middle school. The merged school also will be able to offer more courses in science, technology, engineering and math.

West Ashley High School Principal Mary Runyon, who is overseeing the merger of the two schools, said school officials are hoping that with the implementation of the magnet program, the merged school will have an estimated enrollment of between 600 and 650 students in the fall. Both schools currently have an enrollment of around 250 students. The West Ashley Middle building has the capacity for 950 students.

Paul Padron, assistant associate superintendent of the Middle School Learning Collaborative for Charleston County schools, will serve as interim principal at the merged West Ashley Middle next school year. In addition to the magnet program, Padron said the merged school will have a new academic curriculum for traditional students that includes academic electives. The nine-week-long lessons will allow students to take abbreviated courses focusing on specific content areas. The idea, Padron said, is to provide additional lessons to challenge students who are excelling in a subject or provide remedial lessons to students who may be struggling.

"It's about creating a student-centered schedule based on what the students need," he said.

Perceptions

Better academics is exactly why the task force that Hills participated in last year recommended merging the two schools.

Hills said merging the schools will give the combined school more funding for additional teachers and allow for a more diverse academic curriculum.

"When you lose enrollment, you lose funding for teachers," Hills said, noting that smaller middle schools can't offer classes that larger middle schools can. "A lot of parents weren't happy with that.

"You have so many choices out there now, our students are leaving," she said. "It is our responsibility to provide what our parents want and what our students need right here in the West Ashley area."

The majority of parents Hills has heard from, particularly parents at West Ashley Middle, are happy with the merger and the plans for an improved academic curriculum. The plan has been met with some trepidation from St. Andrew's parents who worry about the changes.

Orecia Hughes, who has a seventh-grader and eighth-grader at St. Andrew's, isn't really comfortable with the merger. She said her daughter has heard rumors about fighting at West Ashley Middle and that there always seems to be a lot of police officers around the school.

"My kids feel very comfortable there," Hughes said of St. Andrew's. "Why not improve our schools instead of closing schools."

Hughes also isn't sure about the academic changes for the merged school, saying that it remains to be seen how well they will be implemented.

"We're experimenting with our kids and I don't think that's fair," she said.

Rodney Lewis, chairman of the District 10 Constituent Board who also served on the task force, said some St. Andrew's parents have been resistant to the idea of merging because of concerns over losing the identity and name of the school.

"It's not about a name for me," he said, "it's about providing a quality education that we can provide our kids with."

The main goal for Lewis is providing a good middle school education for students at their neighborhood school.

"I want children to be able to do like I did and stay in my neighborhood to go to school," he said. "I don't feel like they have to go to Academic Magnet or the School of the Arts to get the best. They can get the best right here at home."

Padron hopes to close any gaps between the two student bodies by focusing on creating a new school identity that all of the students can be proud of. Students are currently working with Runyon to select new school colors as well as a school mascot.

"We want to make sure the merger is not one school moving into another school," he said. "This is the merger of two schools to create a brand new school."

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.