‘Bursting at seams’ Schools take stock Lowcountry superintendents weigh growth, academic gaps at chamber event

The playground in the courtyard of the new Nexton Elementary School is taking shape despite the recent rains. The Berkeley County School will open for students in August of this year.

A projected influx of students in Berkeley County is creating a ripple effect of growth at nearly all of the county’s schools.

The state’s fourth-largest school district is growing by 800 to 1,000 students annually. But the rising enrollment is not in one neighborhood or in the same grades, said Berkeley schools Superintendent Rodney Thompson. And that’s what makes it challenging, he said.

“If you think about your households at home and you were adding a child a year, it wouldn’t take too long before you would run out of bedrooms,” Thompson said.

Rising student enrollment was one of many topics Thompson along with Dorchester District 2 and Charleston school leaders addressed Wednesday as part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s “State of the Region” series.

The three schools chiefs spoke about the state of public education in the tri-county region before a standing room-only crowd of more than 100 educators and business executives at Trident Technical College.

Berkeley County schools are projected to continue growing next school year and Dorchester District 2 is on track to add 600 students. Charleston County is poised to grow by 1,200 students in August, putting the school district at nearly 50,000 students.

“That’s the highest we’ve ever been,” said Michael Bobby, acting superintendent for Charleston County schools. “It’s just amazing to see the growth.”

All three school districts have multimillion-dollar building programs to manage the onslaught of students. Berkeley County will open a new 900-student elementary school in the Nexton subdivision in Summerville next school year. Goose Creek High School in Berkeley County also is “bursting at the seams,” Thompson said. He added that the school is undergoing a massive expansion and renovation that will add nearly 100,000 square feet to the 1950s-era school.

Charleston County will open new, larger buildings for Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle in Mount Pleasant, as well as a new building for St. Andrews School of Math and Science in West Ashley. Dorchester District 2 has two 1,000-student elementary schools currently under construction that will open for the 2016-17 school year.

Thompson said the biggest challenge for school districts in keeping up with exploding residential development is finding land and funding to build and operate more schools. Under state law, people who live in their homes don’t pay school operating taxes, which cover the day-to-day costs of running a school. “It’s very difficult to find property to build a school where the masses are,” Thompson said, noting it’s helpful when developers donate land as part of their projects like Nexton’s developer did. “We encourage all developers to take that responsibility when you put rooftops in the area.”

But growth isn’t the only challenge facing the region’s school districts. Mary Graham, the chamber’s chief advancement officer, said despite the fact that all three school districts earned excellent ratings on the state’s report card last year, there is still a perception that “education is not where it should be in our region” — a fact the superintendents didn’t dispute.

“There’s no perfect way of doing anything,” said Dorchester District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye. “It’s all tied back to the kids and what we’re teaching them in school.”

Pye said where the education system is falling short, not just in South Carolina but also nationally, is a lack of resources to provide pre-kindergarten and 4-year-old kindergarten programs.

“These kids by age three, they’re on their path to success, and when they enter school at five years of age, they’ve already lost several years and can’t catch up,” Pye said.

Bobby said closing the achievement gap between different student groups is also critical to changing perceptions, noting that in Charleston County, two out of 10 students aren’t graduating.

“Those are the reasons that perception is still there,” he said. “Dealing with those challenges is the way to eliminate that perception.”

Wednesday’s event served as a primer for the Chamber’s Principal for a Day program next week ,where 75 business professionals will take the helm of schools across the region. The goal, Graham said in an interview, is to connect teachers and business leaders so that teachers can better prepare students for joining the workforce.

“Having a business person help a teacher understand how algebra is used in (their field) helps students understand why they’re learning something,” Graham said. “It adds relevancy and engages students in learning.”

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.