McClellanville residents continue to push for a new Lincoln High School

Lincoln High School.

Three generations of Lasonya Blake’s family have attended Lincoln High School over the past five decades. Her parents graduated from there, she earned her diploma from the school in 1991 and her two sons have attended the school — one graduated in 2012 and the other is poised to earn his diploma later this year.

Blake has fond memories of her years at the rural McClellanville school, remembering her teachers as “awesome.”

“They made us want to reach higher,” she recalled.

There was never any question that Blake’s children would attend Lincoln. And she’s been happy with the education they’ve received, saying the school’s principal, Yvonne Commodore, and the teachers “go all out for our students.”

But over the years, Blake has become concerned that the school building, known for being flooded during Hurricane Hugo, has been ignored amid declining student enrollment. She feels it’s time for a fresh start for students in McClellanville that doesn’t include the 62-year-old school building in the heart of the small coastal town on the northern edge of Charleston County.

And she’s not alone. Thomas Colleton, who chairs the constituent district school board for McClellanville, has been pushing the Charleston County School Board since August to make Lincoln a priority, calling it a matter of “equity.” In January Colleton urged the board to add a new school for Lincoln to a list of accelerated school building projects. Instead the board opted to leave Lincoln off that list.

While the current building is adequate for serving students’ needs, Colleton worries about the condition of the aging school, citing what appears to be mold or mildew on the walls of at least one bathroom and a faulty heating unit in the science wing.

Blake and Colleton are among many McClellanville residents who want to see a new school for Lincoln with hopes of increasing enrollment and providing better educational opportunities for students.

“I just feel like the time is now,” Blake said.

How to provide a better facility for Lincoln High School has been the focus of debate for a long time.

“The ability to agree on the how has been the challenge,” said acting Superintendent Michael Bobby.

The district for the past several years has had a guiding principle that it will not build new schools for less than 500 students. Over the past decade, Lincoln has had no more than 161 students and, at its lowest, an enrollment of only 85 students in grades 9-12.

The school, which serves middle school as well as high school students, currently has a total enrollment of around 170 students in grades 6-12 of which about 100 students are in high school. And while some parents have said a new school might entice more students to attend the community school, only 247 students in grades 6-12 live in Lincoln’s attendance zone, compared to the nearly 4,300 students in grades 9-12 zoned to go to Wando High School in Mount Pleasant.

Residents railed against a plan last year to renovate the shuttered McClellanville Middle School as a potential site for Lincoln. After the pushback, the Charleston County School Board in August voted to add a new building for Lincoln High at a new site to a list of construction projects tied to an extension of a sales tax for school buildings.

Voters approved the project list and tax extension in November, which also included the renovation of St. James-Santee Elementary School in McClellanville to add middle school grades.

There’s little debate in Bobby’s mind that Lincoln, which he described as a “tired facility,” needs a better building.

“We all look at the building as one that needs attention,” he said.

The question, Bobby said, is what kind of attention.

A new proposal by school district officials offers two alternatives to building a new high school:

Constructing a new 32,500-square-foot building for high school students on the St. James-Santee campus for around $13.1 million

Renovating McClellanville Middle at a cost of around $7.1 million.

Both plans include spending another $1.4 million to upgrade the current gym and football stadium at Lincoln as well as demolishing the old school. According to the district’s latest estimates, a new 76,000-square-foot high school would cost around $35 million.

What the alternatives offer, Bobby said are options for the board to consider based on cost and time.

A new school for Lincoln is among a number of contingent building projects dependent on revenue from the sales tax. Bobby said it would likely be near the end of the sales tax term, which ends in 2022, before the district would know whether there might be enough tax dollars to fund contingent projects.

The two alternatives could potentially be done faster, Bobby said.

“If we could deliver something sooner than later that would be a strong benefit,” Bobby said.

But the question of what kind of facility Lincoln will get is one the school board must ultimately answer.

Board member Tom Ducker, who was among the those who voted to add a new school for Lincoln to the referendum project list, still thinks a new building makes the most sense. He likes the idea of having a new building at St. James-Santee because it takes advantage of existing infrastructure, such as sewer and water, and gets the students out of a flood zone. And Ducker said he’s heard from some in McClellanville who are receptive to the concept.

“That idea might be the best on the table,” he said.

Chris Staubes, who is among three new school board members considering Lincoln’s future for the first time, said he thinks the board has to weigh a number of factors to balance desire with feasibility.

“The main factors are what does the community want, what is the cost and does it really make sense,” he said.

The other issue, Staubes said, is deciding what time frame the community would like to see something new for students.

“We’re talking about (serving) kids in elementary school if we build a new high school,” Staubes said. “If we’re talking about a renovation or expansion, we might have some kids in middle school that could take advantage of it.”

Amid the debate is a small but thriving school where Commodore remains laser-focused on serving the middle and high school students entrusted to her care. The principal said she doesn’t want to be “distracted” by the discussions about a building for her school.

Commodore said elevating her students, the majority of whom come from low-income families, is her goal regardless of what building they’re in.

“My job is to make sure they get to where they need to be,” she said. “That to me is my priority.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, students buzzed up and down the school’s blue halls while changing classes. The building, while old, was clean and functional. Classrooms were decorated with the obligatory motivational posters, while an American flag flapped in the breeze outside the school’s main entrance.

Inside the school’s middle school wing, students in a social studies class were learning about the industrial revolution, while on high school hall math students were busy solving geometry equations.

The school offers all of the core curriculum required for graduation, but because of its low enrollment, it is limited in its advanced and career and technology course offerings. In recent years the school has added three Advanced Placement courses on campus and additional AP courses are available online.

Associate Superintendent Lou Martin said the district will also provide transportation for Lincoln students to attend career and technology classes at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant but that currently no students are using that option.

But parents feel that students should have better access to advanced and elective courses at Lincoln, something they think a new school might rectify through new equipment.

Anissa Manigault, whose son is a senior at Lincoln, said the 25-mile trek from Lincoln to Wando is too far for students to make in the middle of the school day.

“They spend an hour on the bus to get there and they’re missing instructional time traveling to the school,” Manigault said.

“They’re not getting access to everything I think the kids need to further their skills,” said Lincoln PTSA President Carolyn Alston. “I believe with a new building we can have new equipment to provide a better education for the students.”

The discussion surrounding a new or renovated building for the school, Bobby said, would need to include how the facility can help increase students’ access to more courses, which may include more long-distance learning opportunities or online courses.

Martin, who supervises Lincoln, said the issue is one of balancing resources.

“Whatever the building turns out to be, I’m going to make sure the access and opportunities to classes (at Lincoln) are as equitable as they can be with other schools in the district,” he said.

Alston, whose twin 15-year-old sons are freshmen at the school, is opposed to renovating McClellanville Middle, which has been closed since 2009, saying the 95-year-old building is “not up to par.” She also doesn’t like the idea of having the high school students on the St. James-Santee campus with younger children.

Instead, Alston said she would like to see a new school built closer to Awendaw in the hopes of capturing more students as the area develops.

“The community in Awendaw is growing up and we could have more kids come to the school,” she said.

Blake and Manigault also support the idea of having a new high school closer to Awendaw, but both said they could see the value in locating the high school students at St. James-Santee. Blake said the district might be able to use the same staff and facilities, such as the cafeteria at the elementary campus. Manigault said there’s been similar success with that model in Rowesville where Bethune-Bowman Elementary is located on the same campus as middle and high school students.

McClellanville Constituent Board member Joseph Bowers thinks a new building in a new location is the way to go. Bowers is pitching consolidating the constituent districts for McClellanville and Mount Pleasant to have one district serving all of East Cooper.

By consolidating the two constituent districts, Bowers said, enrollment could be more evenly distributed at high schools across East Cooper, allowing for more equitable educational opportunities.

“We have a population problem (in McClellanville),” he said. “There is no way there will ever be the population base out here under the circumstances to continue supporting (equitable) education.”

But for Colleton the issue isn’t just about having a new building, it’s about finding a way to break the cycle of poverty of the students in McClellanville, which he feels conditions in the current school only perpetuates.

“A new school closer to (Awendaw) could open up the door to more opportunities for students,” he said.

Staubes and Ducker both want to see the School Board commit to doing something soon.

“I think there’s some momentum to find a solution,” Staubes said. “If we can get the community together and make a good decision, now’s the time to do it.”

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