East Light sign

East Light Academy occupies a warehouse off Clements Ferry Road at 2325 Charleston Regional Parkway. The public charter school's out-of-the-way location might have been one factor that led to low enrollment in its first semester, according to school leaders. Paul Bowers/Staff

Low enrollment, financial woes and staffing problems could spell the end for East Light Academy, a Mandarin-language charter school that opened in the Charleston area just one month ago.

Small headcounts can lead to financial disaster for charter schools, which receive funding from the state on a per-pupil basis. The school's leaders proposed a charter school with 381 students, budgeted assuming an enrollment of about 180, and told The Post and Courier enrollment was at 150 on opening day, Aug. 20.

In reality, only about 50 students showed up on that first day of school, according to an email that went out to parents last week.

More recent enrollment sat at about 32 students, according to a Sept. 6 letter from the school's sponsor, the S.C. Public Charter School District.

Principal Przemyslaw Murczkiewicz — "Mr. Mur" to the students — said the school's location might have been its downfall. School founders hoped to locate it centrally in North Charleston, making it accessible to a large population of students. Instead they have rented space in a converted medical supply warehouse in an industrial area of Berkeley County. Traffic is often clogged on Clements Ferry Road near the building.

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East Light Academy (copy)

East Light Academy principal Przemyslaw Murczkiewicz explains the school's purpose Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. East Light is the Charleston area's first public Mandarin language immersion school. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The school began enrolling students before it chose the location. When at least 100 students failed to show up for class, Murczkiewicz said a volunteer member of the school's charter board started making calls to see what happened. Many simply hung up, he said.

"It's the location, and people probably didn't want to experiment," Murczkiewicz said. "Maybe they didn't want to take the risk. They were probably waiting a year for other parents to say it's successful and it's good."

East Light Academy is the first public school of its kind in the Charleston area, offering a Mandarin language immersion program where students spend most of their day hearing Mandarin instead of English.

Many of the remaining parents packed a conference room at the school Tuesday night, grilling leaders from the school and state charter district about how things went awry so quickly.

The school is projecting a $475,000 net loss for the school year, partly because the district is demanding that it pay back state tax money that was distributed based on the original enrollment figure of 180. Parents offered to start raising money; some proposed making the school private until it could earn approval as a public charter again.

"I just want to find a way," said Dorian Manigault, who has a son and daughter at the school. "How does this get salvaged?"

Ian Johnson, another parent, walked away convinced that the school will lose its charter Thursday.

"There was a lack of experience from the very beginning, you can see that. They obviously misunderstood an awful lot of things," Johnson said.

Signs emerged this month that East Light was hurting for enrollment. On Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day, the school Facebook page shared an image of a person in a panda mask standing by a roadway, toting an advertisement for the school: "Mandarin Immersion. Tuition-Free."

The S.C. Public Charter School District board will vote Thursday morning on whether to revoke the school's charter effective Oct. 15. Enrollment wasn't the only problem, according to a revocation notice the public charter district's staff sent to the school's leaders. 

The letter notes that two special education teachers have already resigned in succession, and a third candidate withdrew her candidacy Sept. 5. The school has at least two students with disabilities requiring services and accommodations under federal education law.

And while state law allows charter schools to hire teachers without state certification as up to 25 percent of their teaching staff, the district said a staff roster submitted on Aug. 31 indicated 67 percent of the teachers were non-certified. 

Because East Light Academy is sponsored by the statewide charter district, students from any county may attend its campus near Clements Ferry Road — but families must provide their own transportation. The school charges parents $5,500 to enroll their children in 4-year-old pre-kindergarten because the state does not fund charter schools for that age. Kindergarten through second grade are free of charge.

The school is modeled after East Point Academy, a Mandarin immersion charter school in West Columbia that opened in 2011 and currently serves about 500 students.

The revocation letter also mentions that the school hasn't gotten a certificate of occupancy from the state Office of School Facilities, which inspects school buildings for safety. East Light Charter Board Chair Ningji He said the school has gotten a temporary certificate of occupancy but still must resolve some problems, such as lowering a sink to make it wheelchair-accessible.

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East Light Academy (copy)

East Light Academy first grade teacher Sissy Pan teaches her students Monday, Aug. 20. The youngest students spend most of their day learning in Mandarin Chinese, with the goal of becoming nearly as fluent as a native speaker. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.