Ashley Ridge pride

Dominique Francis reads graduation information while participating in graduation rehearsal with fellow seniors on the Ashley Ridge High School stadium field Wednesday. “We founded it, we made it” said Francis, who is part of the first class to attend Ashley Ridge High for all four years.

SUMMERVILLE — The big wooden Ashley Ridge sign on the side of Delemar Highway could be misleading to folks unfamiliar with the area.

Based on its size, some think it marks the entrance to the school, which is another mile or two down the two-lane road.

If nothing else, the sign is indicative of the support many in the area give to Dorchester District 2’s newest high school.

When it was built, Ashley Ridge ran the risk of lacking an identity. Summerville High School was the town’s school, and Fort Dorchester belonged to those at the other end of the district.

Ashley Ridge sits in a rural part of the county, surrounded by farmland and new subdivisions.

“Other schools have made fun of us, but we’ve shown them,” said Austin Livingston, a pitcher for the Swamp Fox baseball team and a future Citadel cadet.

In just four years, the school has become a tight-knit family.

“For us, we think Ashley Ridge is the center of our community,” said Principal Karen Radcliffe.

“Any time you start a new school, your strength is built in traditions and built in what kids are interested in,” Radcliffe said. “They wanted something to call their own, and they did it as a collective group. Kids are different these days. They don’t buy into the traditions of 30 years ago. This group came up with their own things.”

The nearly 400 members of the Class of 2012 who will cross the stage Saturday in the North Charleston Coliseum will be the last of the school’s original students, and the first to go all four years there. The school opened in 2008 with just ninth- and 10th-graders, adding a grade each year. It had its first graduates in 2010, when two students graduated a year early. Last year, about 290 received their diplomas.

Trevor Huggins, Class of 2012 valedictorian, said the camaraderie makes the school unique.

“Everyone gets along,” he said. “There is a connection between the student body that’s sort of like family. It’s definitely the students that make Ashley Ridge what it is.”

He points to the Ridge Rowdies, the student section at athletic events.

“You won’t find a better student section anywhere,” said Huggins, a future Clemson Tiger. “There is a lot of school pride.”

Dominique Francis, who hopes to be a walk-on for the Gamecocks football team, said school spirit has increased as the school has grown.

“We’ve come a long way from (Class) AA schools putting us in the dirt to being a top competitor in the region,” he said.

In a district that’s rich with tradition, Ashley Ridge has wasted no time establishing many of its own.

Wherever the Swamp Foxes go, they let everyone know, “We ARe AR.”

On Monday, the Foxes brought home a state championship in baseball, but there have also been kudos for the Air Force JROTC Drill Team, community service programs, academics and even the turf on the softball field.

“Everything has been so different,” Radcliffe said of the school’s growing list of accolades. “It hasn’t been all athletic, which I appreciate. Athletics are important, but so is fine art, so is academics, so is community service.”

Many attribute the school’s success to Radcliffe, a 1985 graduate of Summerville High School who has spent her educational career in the district. She was an assistant principal at Summerville for more than a decade before Ashley Ridge opened.

“There is a lot of school pride here and I think that’s because of Karen,” said history teacher Kerry Loehrke, who came from Summerville with Radcliffe. “She felt that she wanted to establish that and she sold us all on it from the beginning. I wasn’t here when Fort Dorchester opened, but I heard it was a mess. Karen anticipated that and didn’t have any problems.”

For many years, Summerville was the only high school in the district, but as the area grew, it became apparent a second school was needed. Fort Dorchester’s opening in 1992 brought with it some growing pains as people tried to adjust to the crosstown rivalry.

The district’s third high school opened with very little resistance.

“There were a few people who were zoned for this school and didn’t want to go here,” Radcliffe said. “But it didn’t take them long to come around.”

Now, as the students of the Class of 2012 go their separate ways, they have achieved the goal Radcliffe set before them during those first days at the school.

As the information to seniors on the school’s web site says, “AR is yours because you opened it as freshmen and you have been the leaders who have set the tone and created the culture for all the classes who will come behind you for the history of the school.”

“We gave this group the goal of leaving the school better than what they found it and they’ve done that,” Radcliffe said. “The telltale sign will be if we can continue to do that year after year.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713