Nearly five years ago, around 180 middle school students shuffled into an old red-roofed preschool building on the former Navy base in North Charleston as the first students of Palmetto Scholars Academy.
Some of those students — now among the charter school’s first senior class — helped turn the dirt last week on the site of a new building for the school on Joint Base Charleston. Palmetto Scholars is the first charter school in the state to locate on a military base and only the eighth charter school in the nation to do so.
Air Force Col. Jeffrey DeVore, commander of Joint Base Charleston, said the partnership between the academy and the base has been a long effort that the Department of Defense has worked hard to move forward prior to DeVore’s arrival in Charleston two years ago.
“To finally have the reality of breaking ground and knowing that we are going to put an enduring educational opportunity here not only for North Charleston, but for our military families is really special,” DeVore said prior to a groundbreaking ceremony Friday.
The new $8.4 million building will serve students in grades 612 on 9.8 acres of land on the base along Dorchester Road near Hunley Park. The school is leasing the property for around $71,000 a year.
As part of a state law enacted last year, charter schools can set aside up to 50 percent of their enrollment for students with active-duty parents stationed at a military base where a charter school is housed.
State Sen. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, said he co-sponsored the law as a way to encourage military installations to grant charter schools access to unused land.
“This is a great use of this property,” Daning said, looking out over the school’s new site last week. “This property has been sitting here for years.”
The “key part,” Daning said, was making sure military students would have access to charter schools that open on a base.
By law, charter schools do not have attendance zones or admission requirements. Instead, students are randomly selected through a lottery. Because Palmetto Scholars Academy has its charter to operate through the state Public Charter School District, any student who lives in South Carolina is eligible to attend. The enrollment preference offered through the new law for military students will give guaranteed access for those students.
“The biggest thing is it just gives another educational opportunity for those military families,” DeVore said.
Principal Tim Gott said in an interview that the school’s board of directors has set aside up to 20 percent of the school’s seats for students whose parents serve on Joint Base Charleston. The first group of military students will enroll next school year. Gott said those students fall short of 20 percent of the school’s total projected enrollment of 420, but that he anticipates their numbers will grow once the school opens on the base in January.
In the meantime, Gott called the new 45,000-square-foot building a milestone for the school. The building will allow the school to eventually grow to more than 500 students as the state’s only charter school targeting gifted and talented students.
Gott said all the school’s classes are advanced, and the school’s on-grade-level English and math classes are one grade above what students traditionally would take.
While the scholastics of the school are rigorous, Gott said its building, which students and teachers affectionately call “the tin can,” leaves something to be desired. The school doesn’t have any classrooms specifically designed as science labs. There’s no computer lab or gymnasium. And with 346 students in a school designed for far less, Gott said the school is at it’s breaking point.
“We are packed to the max,” he said.
The whole school shuttled over to the site of the new building on Friday to celebrate with music and dancing before the ceremony began. Tenth graders Holland Jones and Ashley Matthews were nostalgic about their current location, saying it has helped the students become like a family. But the sophomores agreed a new building is desperately needed.
“We really like it but it’s definitely not big enough to house our potential of what we’re going to have,” Jones said.
Amore Evans said having a gym will help the school’s athletics programs grow. The 10th-grader is also looking forward to having dedicated science labs, laughing that a recent experiment with hot plates blew a fuse.
For parent Stacey Lindbergh, who led the effort to open Palmetto Scholars in 2010, seeing the new building take shape is a victory. Lindbergh recalled in an interview the tough financial times the school faced in its first year — so much so that her mother took out a $100,000 mortgage on her house to help the school make payroll.
“We almost didn’t make it that first year,” said Lindbergh, who is chairwoman of the school’s board of directors.
Since then the school has worked with the lawmakers to increase state funding for state-sponsored charter schools. And school leaders have worked diligently to shore up the academy’s finances to pay off the loan to Lindbergh’s mother and qualify for the bonds to build a new school.
Despite the hardships, the academy’s students have excelled academically, earning the school a consistent rating of excellent on the state’s school report card and a grade of “A” through a federal rating system.
“We’re kind of like the little engine that could,” Lindbergh said. “We did what we had to do to show the community how well we could do and we did it.”
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.