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Charleston County School Board might reverse course on West Ashley middle school plan

C. E. Williams Middle for Creative and Scientific Arts School

Work continues Thursday, January 23, 2020, on the new C.E. Williams Middle School that is being built next to West Ashley High School off Glenn McConnell Parkway. The new 137,227- square-foot, 900-student facility will be open for the start of the 2020 school year in August. Brad Nettles/Staff

The Charleston County School Board is considering scrapping plans for a sixth-grade only school in West Ashley.

Instead, the new idea is to put all West Ashley sixth- through eighth-grade students on one campus, at the soon-to-be-open C.E. Williams Middle School. The new school will replace the old C.E. Williams Middle School Building on Butte Street.

To get all the students and teachers to fit, the new school will need to add portable trailers — a point of contention for parents and board members who worry about overcrowding and accommodating future growth. 

The proposal comes two months after the board voted to put all sixth-grade students at West Ashley Middle School, but all seventh- and eighth-graders at the C.E. Williams campus, which is set to open in August.

The so-called  "sixth-grade only academy" plan received mixed support from West Ashley parents. Some viewed it as a rushed decision that lacked adequate vetting and community support.

Others said they were optimistic that merging the two schools would create more equity for all students in the area. 

The $53.3 million C.E. Williams campus is being built next to the existing West Ashley High School off Glenn McConnell Parkway. It was constructed with a capacity for 900 students but with the ability to  expand up to 1,200, according to a FAQ page on the district's website.

The district estimates it serves around 1,300 students across West Ashley's two middle schools.

Parents were repeatedly told that creating the separate sixth-grade academy was the best option for West Ashley because the new C.E. Williams building wouldn't be able to accommodate all middle school students in the area.

Under the new proposal, all of the students could fit on the new campus if mobile classroom trailers were added, the district said. Board members could give final approval to the new plan during a vote at Monday's meeting.

Board Vice Chair Kate Darby estimated that the district could accommodate all students by adding between five and eight portable classrooms, depending on how the school reorganizes its teacher allocations. Potential overcrowding would also be relieved when the nearby Center For Advanced Studies opens in August 2021, Darby said. 

The trailers are a short-term solution, Darby said, and the district will need to eventually expand the C.E. Williams building to add more classroom space. 

"The trailers will go away," she said. "And it'll either be in this referendum savings that we have, or if there's not enough savings, we’ll have a referendum on the ballot this November," she said. "I would want to put it at the top of the list."

The plan to combine both West Ashley middle schools was studied over the summer by a group of community leaders tasked with gathering feedback on some of the district's potential "mission critical" actions. That group found that "the overwhelming consensus view is that the two West Ashley middle schools SHOULD NOT be put into one campus," according to the group's final report.

The new plan came as a surprise to Ragan DuBose-Morris, a West Ashley parent who serves on the district's community group tasked with ironing out the details of the sixth-grade academy. 

"The trust divide that continues to grow bigger because of changes that are made in this manner make it even harder to figure out from where you're starting for the next step of planning," DuBose-Morris said. 

West Ashley parent Francis Beylotte called the new plan "the lesser of two not so great things." 

While he said he preferred the new plan to the sixth-grade academy, he was still skeptical of the merger. 

"I still have a lot of trouble with the way the district has ignored parents and has just done a horrible job communicating with us. And that really needs to change," he said. 

Beylotte argued that plans for school mergers and rezoning to make the area's middle schools more equitable should have started years ago when the new C.E. Williams building was first approved. 

"Parents are fed up with all this scrambling around and trying to solve problems in the last minute that should have come up when the school was planned," he said. "I'm just tired of week after week after week getting shifted around and told something different." 

Darby and Board Member Todd Garrett said they both felt that the new plan would better serve all West Ashley students.

"It was just that it would be simpler and less upheaval, rather than your kids going from fifth grade on one campus to sixth grade at another to seventh and eighth at another and then on to high school at another," Garrett said. "So the intent was to try to simplify kids jumping around while still merging them."

Board Member Cindy Bohn Coats said she will vote in favor of the merger, although she was concerned about why the plan changed after the sixth-grade academy was already finalized. 

"It still seems to be better than nothing. And it still accomplishes some of the things that the people I know are very passionate about and that is equity," Coats said. 

If the plan is approved, the district will need to get permission to put trailers on campus from the state Department of Education. 

Monday's school board meeting will start at 3:30 p.m. Public comments are scheduled for 5:35 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.

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