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Education Lab

West Ashley will keep its sixth grade academy

CE Williams.jpg (copy)

The C.E. Williams Middle School South campus has housed seventh and eighth graders since it opened in 2020. On May 9, 2022, Charleston County School Board members voted to keep that configuration, with West Ashley sixth graders housed on another campus. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston County School District will continue to keep West Ashley sixth graders on a separate campus from its seventh and eighth graders.

C.E. Williams and West Ashley middle schools were set to merge in 2020, but space concerns resulted in the decision to create a sixth grade academy at the former West Ashley building, now called C.E. Williams North.

It was a temporary solution at first, designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about crowding if students from both middle schools were consolidated onto one campus. Administrators have studied whether to keep it that way for the last year, and at a May 9 school board meeting they recommended to Charleston County School Board trustees that the campuses remain separate. The trustees approved the decision.

Keeping the sixth grade academy solves the problem administrators originally grappled with: How to create two West Ashley middle schools, grades 6-8, with roughly equal demographic ratios. There's no easy way to draw boundary lines to achieve that, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy said.

"It has not been practicable, and I don't expect it to be practicable," he told board members.

With just one West Ashley attendance zone, the demographic imbalance isn't an issue. Anecdotally, Borowy noted that the sixth grade academy arrangement seems to be working for families. The district held community meetings in February and March, and feedback from parents was positive.

"They went into this configuration skeptically and they are extremely excited about what it's given to their students," he said.

Sixth grade-only schools are rare in South Carolina and elsewhere, but show early promise of helping ease students' transition to middle school.

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Joe Williams, the district's associate superintendent of secondary learning, said they've seen some academic gains already, though COVID-19 has complicated learning efforts. 

The board also approved adding an annex with additional classrooms at C.E. Williams South and replacing the building at C.E. Williams North. 

At C.E. Williams North, the plans call for construction of a new school with classroom space for 600 students — about 170 more than the highest enrollment projections predict. Core parts of the building, like the cafeteria and gymnasium, will be built for a capacity of 900 students though, giving an option to expand the school later if needed.

The new school would be built behind the existing facility, which would be torn down eventually and turned into athletic fields and parking lots. Construction should be complete by 2026, according to Borowy.  

C.E. Williams South was built with a classroom capacity of 900 and a core capacity of 1,200. The new plans call for adding an annex with eight additional classrooms.

Down the road, both schools would have the capacity to be converted back into traditional middle schools for grades 6-8.

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Reach Sara Gregory at 843-906-1777. Follow her on Twitter at @saragregory.