Again and again, state lawmakers and local education officials have raised the question: Why not merge the two school districts in Dorchester County?

Again and again, the idea has fizzled out.

"People are used to the way it is," said Joe Pye, longtime superintendent of Dorchester County School District 2. "They’ve never known anything else in their lifetime, and they’re like, ‘Why bother to change?’"

Separated by history and a quiet expanse of trees, the two school districts of Dorchester County present their students with different experiences of growing up.

Largely suburban and marked by massive population growth, Dorchester 2 serves the families of Summerville and its outlying subdivisions.

Dorchester School District 4, formed by a 1987 merger of former Districts 1 and 3, includes the more sparsely populated northern stretch of the county from Ridgeville to Harleyville to St. George.

In terms of student population, it's nearly one-tenth the size of its sister district.

Further complicating matters, merging the two Dorchester districts would mean another round of integration. Dorchester 4 has a larger population of minority students and a larger percentage of students in poverty than Dorchester 2.

Proponents of merging the districts have argued the move could save on overhead costs, provide more opportunities to Dorchester 4 students and relieve overcrowding in Dorchester 2 schools bursting at the seams.

Most recently, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has pushed for smaller districts statewide to merge. A 2018 bill would have required all South Carolina districts with fewer than 2,500 students to merge with a neighbor inside their county. A subsequent bill this year sets the threshold at 1,000 students, effectively sparing Dorchester 4 from consolidation.

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Logan Watson, Pearce Collins, Emma Besse and Molly Ackerman work in the television studio at Summerville High School where the students create the weekly WAVE TV program Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Economies of scale

At 3,000 students and counting, Dorchester 2's Summerville High School dwarfs some private colleges in the state. The brick-walled behemoth welcomes more students every day than the entire population of St. George.

"It's nice to be around a lot of people, but that's just my personality," said Bethany Baggett, an 11th-grader at Summerville.

"It's a lot bigger, and it can be hard to stand out in many ways," said senior Pearce Collins, a member of the Wave TV morning news crew. "You know, in a class of 30 to 35 students, it can be hard to get help from your teacher who's trying to help six other people."

Still, for those who can navigate the crowds, opportunities abound. Wave TV, for example, has its own room with an array of high-end video cameras, a green screen and rows of Apple computers for video editing. Soon, a planned Career and Technology Education center being built across the parking lot will include new facilities for multimedia classes.

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Media Technology teacher Kelly Donoghue works with Jelani Moore in Summerville High School's WAVE TV student journalism program Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Attending Summerville means taking your pick of college-credit courses, athletic programs and student activities — including some that couldn't be offered without a critical mass of students.

Edee Strickland, an 11th-grader, plans to have 12 Advanced Placement courses finished by the time she graduates. That could translate into as many as 36 hours of college credit if she passes all her exams, effectively launching her into college as a sophomore.

But even the most driven students sometimes find the place overwhelming. Edee laughs now recalling her horror at walking into the wrong classroom as a sophomore.

Other students say they've struggled to find their teachers for help outside of class hours, particularly when those teachers are designated "floaters," moving from room to room with a pushcart.

The school tried to create a sense of community with a wing dedicated to the "Freshman Academy," but students taking upper-level courses rarely set foot there.

"It is a disorienting freshman year, really anxiety-driven, just because there are so many people and you're trying to find your place," Edee said. "It can be a little bit anxious at first, but as soon as you get into the flow of things, it becomes a lot more like a big community."

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JROTC teacher Sgt. Kevin Simpson gives instructions to students as they set up for the annual Military Ball at Woodland High School JROTC Friday, March 1, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Like a family

On a back hallway at Woodland High, Dorchester 4's only high school, Battalion Commander Antonio Winston called a class of eight Army JROTC students to attention on a recent Friday morning. Shoulders pinned back, the students recited a creed in front of a trophy case gleaming with awards.

It is harder to get lost in the crowd at a school the size of Woodland. For students who want to get involved in student leadership, there's plenty of work to go around.

Leaving from the JROTC room Friday morning, Antonio's next task was to help decorate for the upcoming military ball in the gymnasium.

"The teachers may think of it, but we have to put in the man-hours," said Antonio, a senior.

Woodland has fewer sports to offer than Summerville — no golf, no hockey — and there are only three Advanced Placement courses available this year. But when asked, even the highest-performing students say they don't feel they're missing out.

Ingrid Nunez, a senior, is involved in student government, Beta Club and National Honor Society. She plays on the soccer team and serves as vice president of another student group, Interact, that volunteers to fill backpacks with groceries for low-income students and their families in Harleyville.

Unlike at Summerville, everyone knows everyone here, the students say. When freshmen arrive in the fall, seniors known as Pack Leaders show them around and make sure they don't leave as a stranger.

"When my little sister comes to high school, I want teachers to say, 'I know her sister,'" Ingrid said.

Some students do make it to college with a freshman year's worth of credit already earned, just like at Summerville. But here, they tend to do it through technical college courses. Some students in the upper grades spend their mornings five minutes down the road at Trident Technical College's Quick Jobs Training Center in St. George.

Even the AP course offerings are growing, though. The calculus class attracted just five students last year, but this year the headcount is up to 18. AP U.S. History, another famously difficult course, has 24 students.

"It's based on interest. You've got to want it for yourself," said senior Nyra Govan.

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Antonio Winston, setting up for the Military Ball, serves as the battalion commander for the JROTC program Friday, March 1, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A divided history

Pye estimates the topic of merging the districts has come up for serious consideration at least three times in his nearly 20 years at Dorchester 2. Newcomers to the county are often baffled at the arrangement.

"I’ve been asked my opinion on it by some of the County Council members just recently, and I was very honest that I haven’t given it much thought," Pye said, adding that he would prefer to see a public referendum on the matter.

Meanwhile in Dorchester 4, Superintendent Morris Ravenell openly opposes the idea of a merger.

"To be honest with you, I don’t think we stand to gain a whole lot," Ravenell said in a phone interview.

When asked about the possibility of merging the two Dorchester County school districts, some students at Summerville High said they had never heard of Dorchester 4. Woodland students expressed some skepticism about traveling across the county to high school and worried about losing the close-knit community they enjoy.

The divide between Dorchester County's rural north and suburban south goes back at least to the late-19th century, when Summerville was the largest population center in the county. As charitable organizations and local governments began opening racially segregated schools following the Civil War, Summerville's town schools tended to be larger while the northern area was peppered with small schools, often run by a single teacher, according to a Historic Resources Survey archived by the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

Each of the three historic Dorchester districts had its own integration battle in the 1960s, with local officials resisting federal orders to desegregate until 1970 in most cases. A push to consolidate Districts 1 and 3 caused some controversy in the 1980s, particularly as it meant closing some schools to merge student populations.

News accounts of the merger did not give many details of the reasoning behind it. A 1986 News and Courier article noted that District 1 was running a quarter-million-dollar deficit, in part because of legal fees related to the consolidation. Another article dated Feb. 13, 1987, noted that Dorchester 3 had been without a superintendent since the beginning of the previous school year.

On both sides of the district line today, students and faculty have expressed some skepticism about what good a merger would do.

For Edee, who came to high school with a group of three close friends, the huge student population at Summerville meant a chance to expand her circle of friends. She’s not interested in shrinking the place down.

“I feel like what makes Summerville Summerville,” Edee said.

The smaller class sizes and rural feel at Woodland have their defenders, too. Not least among them is Principal Michael White, who cooked up a new alternate logo with the athletic director last year: An angular letter W with “The Wood” written over it on a banner. He wears it stitched to the breast of his collared shirt.

“It’s a prime example of how we brand,” White said. “Either we tell the narrative or somebody else is going to tell it for us.”

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

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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