Mount Pleasant — On her first day of senior year, Sharome Stafford was late to every one of her classes: Drama 2. Architecture and Civil Engineering. English 4. Honors Calculus.
When she finally arrived to her last class on the other side of campus, the door was locked. She had to knock.
Sharome, a poised 17-year-old who carries herself with a quiet confidence, isn’t used to the hustle at Wando High School, or the masses of students thronging the hallways, or unfamiliar faces filling every desk. At her old school, she and her friends lingered at their lockers between classes. She recognized every teacher, administrator and student by name. She never bothered memorizing classroom numbers; she knew the layout of the school — two hallways, a series of breezeways, a modest media center, an outdated gym — by heart.
Last spring, Sharome learned she wouldn’t graduate from her mother and older sister’s beloved alma mater. In May, as the Charleston County School District contended with a multimillion-dollar shortfall, the school board voted to close historic Lincoln Middle-High in McClellanville at the end of last school year.
The board’s decision sparked an outcry from dozens of Lincoln alumni and displaced as many students. This time last year, Lincoln enrolled fewer than 150 students in grades 6-12, nearly all of them black and from low-income families. Wando’s principal, Sherry Eppelsheimer, estimates 78 of these former Lincoln students now attend Wando, the state’s largest brick-and-mortar school with more than 4,000 students, 25 miles from McClellanville in Mount Pleasant.
When Sharome heard the news, she was angry. On April 28, she rattled off a Facebook post:
“Y’all do realize Charleston is targeting the predominantly black schools in the county just ‘cause this whole budget cut thing!” she wrote. “They don’t care about the students. THEY ONLY CARE ABOUT MONEY. That’s not fair to us or the teachers.”
School board members who supported the closure said their decision was about giving Lincoln students a better education, not race or finances, though research suggests school closings disproportionately impact poor and minority students.
Lincoln is the sixth school the district has closed in seven years. In 2009, facing similar budget constraints, the school board voted to close five schools: Brentwood Middle, Charlestowne Academy, Schroder Middle, Fraser Elementary and McClellanville Middle. Like Lincoln, all of them were predominately black, low-income, and had been rated “at-risk” or “below average” on their most recent state report cards.
Studies also show school closings rarely improve student performance, unless displaced students are sent to higher-performing schools. While Wando is one of the district’s higher-performing schools, critics of the board’s decision point out that achievement isn’t universal. On their ACT standardized tests, for example, black students at Wando in 2015 scored, on average, 6.2 points lower than their white peers. Their average ACT composite score (16.2) was also lower than average scores among students in poverty (17.8) and students with disabilities (16.8).
“Some of the students from Lincoln, I’m sure, will go on and matriculate and do very well academically because they’re very strong students,” said Michael Miller, one of the three black board members who voted against closing Lincoln this spring. “But my real concern is the struggling student from Lincoln, the struggling learner, who may need extra attention and intervention and making sure they’ll get that support at Wando.”
When board members voted to close Lincoln, they also promised a “collaborative transition plan, including a plan to provide academic, social and emotional support” for former Lincoln students, according to meeting minutes. The district charged Lincoln’s former principal, Pamela Jubar, with implementing that plan and hired her as an associate principal at Wando, in part to help former Lincoln students acclimate to their new, vastly larger school.
“It is a fine balance between acknowledging and supporting the unique position of these students who attended (Lincoln) last year and making sure they have the best high school experience possible,” said school board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats. “I believe Ms. Jubar, along with the Wando administrators, have found that balance. I’m excited.”
At first, Sharome feared the district was “setting them up for failure,” writing on Facebook that her classmates “would slip through the cracks,” not that she personally needed to worry. At Lincoln, Sharome boasted a 4.029 grade point average, the second highest in her class of 15 students.
She was class president, a member of Junior ROTC, a volunteer tutor and obviously college-bound. On Thursday nights and weekends, she worked at Buckshot’s Carry Out on U.S. Highway 17 in McClellanville, saving enough money to buy a dark-green 1998 Hyundai Accent for $300 off Craigslist. She wants to go to The Citadel next year and become an engineer in the Air Force.
After five years at Lincoln, Sharome had grown used to small classes with no more than half a dozen students. If she was struggling, she could easily get one-on-on time with her teachers. But her she knew her opportunities at Lincoln were limited.
Last school year, Lincoln offered just three career and technology courses and two Advanced Placement classes. At Wando, students can choose from more than 250 courses, including dozens of AP classes and electives, such as landscape technology, advanced computer repair, fashion design and strength training. Sharome will take the class she’s most excited about — aerospace engineering — next semester.
At new-student orientation on the Tuesday before school started, Sharome got a glimpse of what her senior year at Wando would look like. She toured an engineering classroom, one of several with its own 3-D printer. She ate pizza in the renovated cafeteria where the menu options seem endless. She visited the “ChopHouse,” Wando’s student section in the school gymnasium. At Wando, she learned the bleachers are always full. She took home a Wando window decal for the back of her car.
“Change isn’t necessarily bad,” she said later. “It’s ... different.”
On Thursday morning, shortly after sunrise, Sharome stood on her granny’s driveway, tucked inside the Francis Marion National Forest, swatting mosquitoes while waiting for the bus. Her ride to school is about an hour each way.
At 7:02 a.m., her school bus rounded the bend in the road, lights blinking, 12 minutes past her scheduled pickup time. Sharome crossed the street, cradling a tote bag full of schoolwork in the crook of her elbow, and a set of false eye lashes in her manicured hand. She woke up at 6 a.m. instead of her usual 5:15 a.m. Thursday morning, so she’d have to put on those lashes during the ride.
“Have a good day, my Sharome!” her mother, Constance, called from the driveway. “Pumpkin!”
Constance grew up in McClellanville. When she graduated from Lincoln in 1981, her class alone had 129 students, she recalled. And her school community felt “just like family.”
“As any parent, you would want your child to stay in the same school, and I wanted her to graduate from there and I was sad about the school closing down,” Constance said. “(But) if it’s gonna help Sharome, you know I’m all for it.”
As for Sharome, things are getting easier at her new school. The size of Wando’s campus is still overwhelming. She misses Lincoln’s near-empty hallways. Her Honors Calculus class moves at a quicker pace than she expected. Her biggest fear now is she’ll fall down the stairs while rushing to class.
But she’s excited to work on her stop-motion video project in Architecture and Civil Engineering. Maybe she’ll try out for a school play. And her old friends from Lincoln tell her they’re doing just fine.
She’ll always be a Lincoln Yellow Jacket. Soon she’ll feel like a Wando Warrior, too.
“I’m kind of comfortable right now,” she said. “Well, getting comfortable.”
Reach Deanna Pan at (843) 937-5764.