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New plan for West Ashley middle school approved, but it might not be permanent

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

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

Charleston County School Board voted Monday night to reverse course on a controversial plan to create a sixth-grade-only school in West Ashley.

Instead, the district will put all students zoned for West Ashley middle schools on one campus at the soon-to-be-opened new C.E. Williams building. All sixth- through eighth-graders will attend C.E. Williams for the 2020-21 school year. 

But the decision might not be permanent. District staff will come back to the board with a “a long-term middle school plan” for West Ashley after engaging with the District 10 constituent board and community members.

“I feel like this gives everybody the opportunity to get into the school with the new programs,” said board member Chris Fraser. “My hope is that this gives West Ashley community time to be involved with the solution.”

The board approved a plan in November to put all sixth-graders at West Ashley Middle School but all seventh- and eighth-graders at the new C.E. Williams campus off Glenn McConnell Parkway when it opens in August.

Advocates said the sixth-grade academy plan would promote diversity and equitable opportunities for all West Ashley students, but some parents were worried about the lack of available data on sixth-grade-only schools in South Carolina.

Some parents said they were caught off guard when the district announced a new plan last week to scrap the plan they approved in November and instead put all of West Ashley’s 1,200 or so middle school students on one campus.

In order for all the students and teachers to fit, the district has estimated it will need to add between six and eight portable classrooms to the new school’s campus, a point of contention for some parents.

“I’m not the biggest fan of the kids being in trailers ... but whatever we need to do to get the kids an equal education. What I'm not going to go with anymore is the black kids being left out,” said Elvin Speights, a West Ashley resident and community activist.

But many parents criticized what they called the district’s lack of community engagement and research when crafting the West Ashley plan.

“I want you to show me how your plans are going to get us from A to B to C, and under what time frame. These abstract promises and these random plans thrown at the wall with equity tacked behind it are just not working. We have to do better,” said West Ashley parent Francis Beylotte.

These concerns were echoed by West Ashley parent Ragan DuBose-Morris, who serves on a community committee that’s been meeting for weeks to iron out the details of the sixth-grade academy plan.

“I think that before we can go forward and really have success, West Ashley has to have buy-in. West Ashley has to have a seat at the table,” DuBose-Morris said.

The board voted 6-2 to approve putting all students on one campus next year. Board members Cindy Bohn Coats and Kevin Hollinshead voted against the new plan. Chris Collins abstained.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said that making changes to West Ashley’s middle schools is a necessary step to addressing a lack of diversity and ensuring equitable opportunities between students.

The zoning map for the current C.E. Williams Middle School is “gerrymandered in ways that are difficult to understand,” she said.

“If you are born inside C.E. Williams, you have to get on a bus and ride a bus to West Ashley Middle School," Postlewait said.

It's unknown what will happen to the old West Ashley Middle School campus on William Kennerty Drive. Some parents have expressed concern that Orange Grove Charter School would have the first pick to use the unoccupied building. 

The district will bring a new, long-term plan for the area before the end of June so that the board can consider alternative plans that could be included in the first phase of the 1 percent sales tax referendum in November.

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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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