After nearly two years of construction, Mount Pleasant’s second high school is ready to welcome students and teachers to its classrooms this fall.
Lucy Garrett Beckham High School is the first new high school building to be completed by the Charleston County School District in 10 years after the completion of North Charleston's R.B Stall High School in 2010.
Beckham's 245,000-square-foot building was designed with students in mind, said Principal Anna Dassing. Everything from the campus layout to the type of furniture used in classrooms and common spaces is meant to encourage student freedom and independence.
The building’s atrium, cafeteria and collaborative work spaces are more akin to a college campus setting than a traditional high school.
One objective is that students can "move around and have independence,” Dassing said.
The new building sits on a 44-acre site at Mathis Ferry Road and Whipple Road. About 760 ninth and 10th grade students are enrolled this school year, Dassing said, but she expects the head count to rapidly grow.
Additional grades will be added each year as students move up, she said, with the full capacity of 1,500 students expected in the 2022-23 school year.
The $103.7 million project was funded by a 1 percent sales tax extension passed by voters in 2014.
The new high school’s completion fulfills the vision of its namesake Lucy Beckham, a beloved CCSD educator who served as the principal of Wando High School for more than 15 years.
Beckham, who passed away in 2015, spearheaded the initiative to open the East Cooper Center for Advanced Studies and a second high school in Mount Pleasant as Wando’s enrollment boomed from 1,300 students to more than 4,000.
“Bringing her vision to life has just been a blessing and a gift to us and to me and to our community,” Dassing said.
The new school includes 70 classroom spaces, science labs, 2D and 3D art studios, a media center, collaborative work spaces, two gymnasiums and a 500-seat auditorium. The site also includes a competition track and field, two practice fields, a band tower and parking spaces for staff and students.
An additional $4.7 million will be used to construct a softball press box, a baseball field and tennis courts.
Its cafeteria features floor-to-ceiling windows, a technology charging station and lightweight plastic chairs meant to be used in the school's outdoor courtyard/lunch space.
“I don’t think you’ll find a cafeteria much like this anyplace else,” Dassing said. “We like to call it a coffee shop on steroids.”
Unlike a normal 25-minute high school lunch period that barely allows students enough time to get their food and eat it before returning to the classroom, Beckham leaders have built a 50-minute lunch period into all students' schedules.
Under the “one lunch” model, all students will have lunch at the same time. They can use this time to socialize, hold club meetings, exercise in the auxiliary gymnasium, speak with guidance counselors or even visit teachers if they need to make up a test or have additional questions they'd like help with.
“Think about the kids that get fatigue in the school day towards their third block or fourth block in the afternoons because they've just been wall-to-wall school with a tiny lunch,” said Assistant Principal Dan Cieslikowski. “Now they have something to get some energy out, reinvigorate their brain, their mind, and then they're going to feel a lot more empowered to go into an academic setting in the afternoon and be successful.”
Beckham High will be the first school in the district to implement a "CREW" advisory program. The initiative, which stands for "Creating Relationships Exploring Within" allows small groups of students to meet daily with the same teacher for at least two years to build life and academic skills, such as study habits, confidence and responsibility, Dassing said.
"All of the groups are very heterogeneously mixed," she said. "So a lot of times in high school cliques form, and you got the music kids and you got the athletic kids and you got whatever. CREW was a place where we hope to have a really diverse group of students so that they can come together and kind of get to know each other."
The high school provides a glimpse into what a modern, 21st-century learning environment looks like. At least a dozen so-called "pull up" charging stations are scattered throughout the building. Students can also experiment with new digital technology equipment, including 3D printers and laser cutters, in the school's third-floor student makerspace.
"It truly is a makerspace, a place where they can make lots of high-quality work" Dassing said.
Opening a brand-new high school amid a global pandemic hasn't been easy, she said, but it's something school leadership and teachers have taken in stride.
"There are lots of challenges, there are lots of barriers, there are lots of reasons why we could have said 'we can't do this in the middle of a pandemic, let's slow down, let's do something different.' But we didn't. We took it as an opportunity," Dassing said.
On Friday, during a tour of the school, algebra teacher Beth Darby tested her classroom's livestreaming equipment. This way, she'll be able to teach one group of students in person while broadcasting her lesson in real time to a group of students learning online from home.
"You know nothing is going to be perfect, but the whole thing about Beckham and Lucy’s vision was that you would do what’s best for the kids, and you find a way to meet them where they are and get them where they need to be. So that's what we're doing," Darby said.
"It might not be perfect but it's as close as we can get it," she added.
Beckham's construction was overseen by Cumming Construction Management. The campus was designed by McMillan Pazdan Smith and the building was constructed by Contract Construction.
Also this year, the district is opening a $42.7 million Cooper River Center for Advanced Studies, a career and technology site for high schoolers, and a $22.5 million regional stadium, both in North Charleston.
In addition there is a new $53.3 million C.E. Williams Middle School Building in West Ashley and a $52 million new Camp Road Middle School on James Island.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how long CCSD educator Lucy Beckham served as principal of Wando High School. She became principal in 1998.