James Island parents uneasy about merger of middle schools

A Charleston County School District task force has recommended merging Fort Johnson and James Island middle schools and building a larger middle school at Fort Johnson’s location on Camp Road. Amanda Kerr/Staff

A new proposal calling for the merger of James Island’s two middle schools and the construction of one larger school is drawing questions from parents who are worried about the logistics of the plan.

Parents learned about a proposal to merge James Island and Fort Johnson middle schools during a community meeting Tuesday at Stiles Point Elementary School where a school district task force laid out a plan to move all of the island’s middle school students to James Island Middle for the 2017-2018 school year.

A new middle school for up to 1,000 students would be built at Fort Johnson’s location on Camp Road near Hale Street, opening in 2020 as the island’s only middle school.

Construction of a new building for Fort Johnson Middle School was tied to a referendum voters approved last year to extend a 1 percent sales tax for school construction. A school district task force voted last month to recommend a plan to merge the two middle schools and build one larger school. The school board would have to vote on the plan before it is implemented.

“The thinking of the (task force) was to get the kids together as soon as possible to build that (school) community,” Associate Superintendent Lou Martin told parents Tuesday.

James Island Middle School has 350 students enrolled this school year but has room for up to 600. Fort Johnson Middle has around 520 students this year, just under its capacity of 545. The principals for both schools told parents that having higher enrollment at a larger merged school would allow for more elective course offerings. Neither school currently has chorus and they are limited in their STEM and foreign language courses.

Having more elective courses, such as forensic science, said James Island Middle Principal Jay Hudson, would help engage more students.

“It would really give us the opportunity to catch kids who aren’t into music or art,” Hudson said.

More than 40 parents peppered school officials with questions about the plan. Some worried about traffic impacts by having all the students located at James Island Middle, which is located on Camp Road near Pauline Avenue. Other parents didn’t like that sixth grade students would have to be in trailers at James Island Middle and wondered whether those students could be placed at the old Stiles Point Elementary on Mikell Drive while the new school is under construction. And some parents were concerned that a larger middle school would mean bigger class sizes and less individual attention for students.

Parent Jordan Gilbert said both of her children, who are zoned to attend Fort Johnson, would be in middle school during the transition years at James Island Middle. She worried about moving all of the students to a temporary location, and said she would prefer to keep both middle schools open until the new school is complete.

“My biggest concern is just the logistics,” Gilbert said.

Fort Johnson Principal David Parler said keeping the students at Fort Johnson while a new school is under construction would likely mean having all of the school’s students in trailers or building over the school’s athletic fields. Having all of the students off the campus, Parler said, would expedite construction and save the athletic fields, which could not be replaced.

Tuesday’s forum was the third in a series of meetings to share the proposal with James Island parents. A fourth and final forum will be held from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at James Island Elementary School at 1872 Grimball Road on James Island.