Schools struggling with rising roll calls

Dana Frazeur talks with her son Griffin as her daughter Avery solves math problems at their home in Mount Pleasant's new Carolina Park neighborhood where they have lived since November. Grace Beahm/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT - At the crosshairs of Highway 17 and Longpoint Road, the de facto dividing line between southern and northern Mount Pleasant, a tiny historic chapel reminds drivers of this booming town's sleepy bygone past.

Today, six lanes of traffic rumble toward the Dunes West and Park West neighborhoods and school-opolis that is Wando High. The town's only high school, it could top 4,000 students as soon as next year.

And far more students will flock to the area's already overcrowded schools as huge new neighborhoods such as Carolina Park come on board.

"The main reason we moved here was the good public schools," said Natalie Bodie, who moved to Carolina Park last fall. "I love it here."

She's not alone in feeling that way.

Last year, Mount Pleasant and neighboring islands that go to the same schools were home to about 33,000 housing units. Over the next decade, about 7,000 more will join in.

And by 2040? Mount Pleasant alone likely will top 100,000 residents, many drawn to its quality public schools. They will bring new children into buses, car-rider lines, classrooms, cafeterias and extracurriculars - about 3,000 more in the coming decade.

As residents pack town meetings to protest densities in southern Mount Pleasant, especially along Coleman Boulevard, most new housing is popping up in the northern end of town where it is overloading schools with new students.

Where will they all go?

Charleston County School District released seven-day enrollment figures Friday that showed nearly every school in northern Mount Pleasant exceeded projections this year.

Wando welcomed a freshman class of 1,035. Cario Middle School's 1,313 students make it bigger than most county high schools. And Laurel Hill Primary has 14 classes of kindergartners alone.

"It has become a safety issue," Mount Pleasant Councilman Paul Gawrych said. "We have got to do something now."

However, building new schools hinges on whether voters approve an extension to the 1 percent sales tax in November to fund school construction. That would extend the six-year tax, approved in 2010, through 2022.

Mount Pleasant isn't the only area vying for the money. Its schools are among 21 core projects at stake countywide.

A new elementary school for the town likely will come sooner rather than later. But a new high school? Even with the sale tax funding, 2019 is a hopeful goal, Gawrych said.

"The schools here are the biggest," said Dana Frazeur, who moved to Carolina Park last fall. "And they aren't getting any smaller."

At the entrance to Wando High's campus, a new neighborhood is being born. And it's a big one.

Traffic circles filled with flowers and palms usher visitors into a zone of white pickups, moving trucks, countertop trucks, landscaping trucks - and minivans. Building is everywhere, street after street of single-family homes under construction.

The 1,608-acre Carolina Park is set to add more than 2,000 housing units to Mount Pleasant's rolls. As of July 31, developers had built 146 homes and had 98 permitted or under construction, said Christiane Farrell, the town's planning director.

Dana and Glen Frazeur moved in last fall from Park West back when the pizza delivery guy didn't know their street even existed. Today, it is lined with fresh landscaping and children's bikes.

Dana Frazeur recalls graduating from the old Wando with a class of 350. This year's freshman class tops 1,000.

Her children, in fourth and sixth grades, have gone to overcrowded schools their entire lives, yet they enjoy having so many friends in their new neighborhood. They also have a new pool, new soccer fields and a big new public library coming.

A few doors down, Bodie moved in with her daughters, who are 3 years old and 4 months. She too loves it. "This is the next Park West for sure."

Carolina Park will produce about 940 students across the grade levels, based on a Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments predictors.

"School overcrowding in north Mount Pleasant is a huge issue - and one I hear more about than any other issue in the town," said Councilman Chris O'Neal, who moved to Carolina Park with his young family. "Wando High School is larger than most colleges in the state of South Carolina."

Go to any Mount Pleasant meeting these days and hear residents hotly debate increasing densities on the southern end of town near the Old Village. But reality is, most growth is heading north.

And it's not just Carolina Park. The neighborhood sits in one of the most rapidly growing areas of Mount Pleasant, north of the intersections of highways 17 and 41 on the Wando side, a stretch already home to Park West and Dunes West.

In 2010, that quadrant of Mount Pleasant had 5,500 to 6,500 housing units of all types.

By 2030, that likely will grow to more than 8,500, Farrell said.

And housing growth equates to school growth. Charleston County School District's seven-day enrollment figures for this school year show:

Laurel Hill has 1,079 students, about 140 students more than the building's capacity.

Charles Pinckney Elementary, which serves third through fifth grades, has 1,296 students, at least 200 students more than capacity.

Cario Middle has 1,313 students, putting it at capacity.

Wando, the town's only high school, has 3,860 students. It long ago maxed out capacity.

Yet, while schools near Carolina Park are bursting with kids, many on the southern end of town are under capacity. Enrollment even dropped at a few this year.

James B. Edwards Elementary has room for 40 more students while Whitesides Elementary could take another 110. Moultrie Middle has 797 students but has space for up to 945.

East Cooper schools have dominated talks among town and school officials in recent months as they hashed out a list of school projects for the sales tax referendum in November.

But even if approved, the money won't bring quick relief.

Resulting school construction wouldn't start until 2017, said Michael Bobby, the school district's chief financial officer.

And there's no guarantee Mount Pleasant schools would come first. The School Board will order 21 core projects based on overcrowding, enrollment growth, conditions of facilities, safety and program equity, Bobby said.

"We are keenly aware of the growth on the Wando site," he said. "There are similar needs of growth and overcrowding in North Charleston where we've got severe overcrowding at multiple elementary schools. We are going to work very hard to make sure these things are ordered in the way that makes the most sense."

However, school officials have discussed a financing strategy that could be used to build projects like a Carolina Park elementary school sooner. For instance, the School Board could take out bonds to accelerate projects.

"That's why it's important to do the (sales tax) extension now. If we waited until 2016, we could not have this option," Bobby said.

As for a second high school in Mount Pleasant - that will have to wait. Taking out bonds ahead of 2017 for a new building and stadium with an $89.9 million price tag isn't an option due to the amount.

Plus, building a second high school on the old Wando campus on Mathis Ferry Road will take time. Construction of a new football stadium would come first so that the old stadium and school can be demolished. Then, work could begin on a new high school building.

Meanwhile, Wando Principal Lucy Beckham is used to running a small army at her school. They key, she said, is supervision. She estimated the adult to child ratio is 1:11 or 1:12.

"Class sizes don't go up," she said. "We add more soldiers to our army. There are plenty of adults here."

A new Center for Advanced Studies on the school's campus has added 600 seats and a café - along with breathing room as the school approaches 4,000 students.

"When we hit 4,000, Roman candles will not go off and education will still go on," Beckham said.

Debbie Compton, who has two children at Wando and two others who graduated, said the school's size is daunting at first but she's been happy.

"It's more of how the school is run than the numbers," she said. "There are so many opportunities for classes that you couldn't get at a smaller school. I choose to emphasize the opportunities more than any kind of fear factor of the size."

Eddie Potter, who has children at Pinckney and Cario, said school growth is a double-edged sword.

"We chose to live in this neighborhood because of the quality of education in these three schools," he said.

He and his wife are pleased with their daughters' educations but have "very specific concerns that are a direct result of the overcrowding and the explosive growth."

For instance, traffic is a big problem with Pinckney, Laurel Hill and Cario all on one campus in Park West.

Mount Pleasant resident Kate Darby, who served on two committees evaluating the town's school needs, said angst over growth is most palpable at Pinckney and Laurel Hill, which serve the youngest kids.

"When I talk to leadership at the Park West schools, they're panicky almost," she said.

Pinckney Principal Leanne Sheppard said the school has 18 third-grade classes, 15 fourth grades and 17 fifth grades.

"They perform miracles. How they do it is absolutely incredible," Gawrych said. "But we are at a breaking point."

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563 or at jhawes@postand Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at akerr@postand