New elementary school welcomes students back to Sullivan's Island

Parents talk Monday outside the main entrance to the new Sullivan's Island Elementary School after dropping off their children for the first day of school.

Sullivan's Island Elementary held its inaugural first day Monday, welcoming students to maritime-themed classes in a building designed to withstand punishing storms and earthquakes, yet was fought by some island residents as too big.

The opening of the new 74,000-square-foot, $28.3 million building marks the return of the elementary school to its island namesake after being moved because of safety concerns about the old school to Mount Pleasant, where students have attended the old Whitesides Elementary since 2010.

On Monday, town officials who supported the new school came out to greet parents and students.

"To finally see the building done and the look on the kids and parents faces is amazing," said Sullivan's Island Mayor Mike Perkis. "It makes all the effort we put in worthwhile."

Perkis is hopeful that residents who opposed the new school will come around once they see it for themselves. He noted that when the Sullivan's Island lighthouse was built more than 50 years ago island residents opposed it because of its stark black color.

"Now it's iconic," he said.

Plans for a new elementary school on the island have been in the works since 2010 because of concerns that the old school would collapse in a serious earthquake. The old Sullivan's Island Elementary dated to the 1950s and narrowly survived a beating from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Since 2011, a contingent of residents on the island, including a former mayor, have railed against the new school, objecting to its size and location.

Opponents wanted a referendum held and went to court when they were denied. The final ruling came in June when Circuit Judge Markley Dennis Jr. issued an order saying the town did not have an obligation to adopt a resident-driven ordinance that sought a vote on the size of the new school.

The new school has a capacity of up to 500 students. Enrollment at Sullivan's Island Elementary has fluctuated over the last few years between 330 and 430.

The new school was designed to withstand hurricane force winds and waves as well as earthquakes. The building was also elevated above FEMA standards to accommodate flooding.

Jerry English, an architect with Cummings & McCrady who helped design the school, toured the school Monday along with Charleston Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley. English said the school's interior features a maritime theme to match the building's beachfront location and its marine curriculum. Sullivan's Island Elementary offers a partial magnet program with a focus on math, science and coastal environment.

Among the unique features of the building are classroom areas designed to accommodate portable aquariums. In the kindergarten wing, English said porthole-shaped windows that looked into the school's hallway were placed child height so they can easily look through.

Another key feature, English said, is the building's strategic design with smaller exterior wings adjacent to nearby houses meant to be "balanced to the residential lots." The exterior design is also meant to blend in with it's beige siding and white trim.

"This building is meant to belong," English said.

Students and parents alike oohed and aahed at the new school.

"I just think it's beautiful," said Isle of Palms resident Kelly Petit, whose three children attend the school. "There is so much space for the kids to move around."

McGinley quizzed students about what they thought of the school. Answers ranged from "shiny" to "great technology" to "it's way nicer."

After the first hour-and-a-half, Principal Susan King was looking forward to the rest of the day.

"I'm just thrilled to welcome the students back to the island," she said. "It's just a really happy day."

Schools in Charleston and Dorchester counties began Monday while Berkeley County schools open Tuesday.

In addition to the opening of Sullivan's Island Elementary, the Charleston School District also opened a new building for Harbor View Elementary on James Island and a new Center for Advanced Studies at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant.

The $25.5 million Harbor View project features a new 86,000-square-foot building that can accommodate up to 600 students. Wando's Center for Advanced Studies, which is a new concept for the district, is a $44.7 million project that includes high-tech, state-of-the-art classrooms in a 130,000-square-foot building across from the main Wando High. There's also a new separate 6,000-square-foot automotive garage.

Wando Principal Lucy Beckham said with enrollment climbing more than 200 students over last school year to 3,940, the opening of the new center couldn't have come at a better time. The main building has a capacity of 3,000 students and even with the new building, which accommodates 600 students, there will still be between 500 and 600 students attending classes in trailers.

The new building is housing career and technology courses aimed at providing students an opportunity to graduate with professional certifications in fields like cosmetology, auto mechanics and health sciences. An array of advanced placement courses will also be offered.

Beckham hopes to be able to partner more with Trident Technical College to offer more dual enrollment courses at the center and allow the college to use the space during after-school hours to offer adult courses.

"It's not a school anymore," she said. "It's a campus."