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The Post and Courier: Growth drives the need for new schools in Mount Pleasant

Posted May 12, 2014 in News

Wando High School was 500 students under capacity when its doors opened 10 years ago at the new campus off of U.S. Highway 17.

Today, Wando is the state's largest high school with about 3,700 students and is projected to reach an enrollment of 3,800 students in the fall.

Crowding isn't an issue only at Wando, though. Both Laurel Hill Primary and Charles Pinckney Elementary are over capacity by several hundred students. And with more than 6,000 residential units slated to come on line in the coming years, that means more growth in the schools.

A new town committee appointed by Mayor Linda Page is taking a closer look at the issue in hopes of getting some help from the Charleston County School District. The effort also involves state lawmakers.

Extend the 1 percent sales tax?
The new committee, which met for the first time last week, wants to draw attention to the town's school needs ahead of a possible referendum in November to extend a 1 percent sales tax aimed at funding the school district's building program.

Charleston County voters approved the six-year sales tax increase in 2010, but the Legislature would have to pass a bill allowing a referendum this year to extend the tax. If not, the school district can't hold a referendum until the tax expires in 2016.

The House passed a bill last week allowing the referendum to take place this year, but the Senate still has to take up the issue.

"The school district has pressing needs all over the county," said Councilman Paul Gawrych, who is chairing the committee. "We in Mount Pleasant are growing faster than other parts of the county. Our needs are greater, and we need to make sure the school district understands that.

"This isn't about telling them how to do their job," Gawrych said. "It's about making sure we're all on the same page."

Some Mount Pleasant residents are frustrated that the town doesn't already have a new elementary school out of the sales tax that was approved in 2010.

"Everybody assumed that it would make the list," Gawrych said. "We felt like everybody there at (school district headquarters at) 75 Calhoun understood."

This time around the committee hopes to have individual schools included on a referendum ballot so there's no confusion, Gawrych said.

Elementary needs
More than 2,000 new residential units are approved for the Carolina Park development, which likely will add many more children in northern Mount Pleasant. Michael Antonelli, principal at Laurel Hill, said his K-2 school exceeded its 850-student capacity not long after opening in January 2006. For the last few years, the school has operated with an enrollment of between 1,050 and 1,150 students.

Antonelli said the school is staffed for its current enrollment of about 1,050, which has kept class sizes from rising. To accommodate more classes, the school is making do with nine portable classrooms.
The biggest challenge, Antonelli said, is managing students at lunch and handling traffic, including about 29 buses, for arrival and dismissal.

Assistant Superintendent Terri Nichols, who oversees more than 20 elementary schools in the school district, said the need for another elementary school in the town is immediate. The school district already owns land near Carolina Park so the only need is funding.

"The only question mark is how soon is it going to be done," Nichols said. "We need it now. If it was built, we could fill it."

Nichols said in the short term an attendance zone change through the constituent boards is planned for the 2015-16 school year. That should help redistribute students from more crowded schools to those that are below capacity. School officials are hoping the new Jennie Moore Elementary under construction will help, too, with a capacity of about 1,200, Nichols said.

High school needs
Wando High Principal Lucy Beckham, who has been at Wando since 1998, said the town's only high school has seen significant growth with enrollment rising from about 1,900 in the late 1990s to 2,500 when the new school opened in 2004. In the decade since the new Wando campus opened, the school has added another 1,000 students.

"We are accustomed to having a crowd," Beckham said, adding that the school has plenty of restrooms, large halls and a recently expanded cafeteria. "We have made the most we can with what we have."

Still, the school has some challenges. Beckham said there are 19 teachers who don't have assigned classrooms and move every period. Another 50 teachers move classrooms part of the time. At any given time there are between 500 and 600 students in portable classrooms.

The school is opening a Center for Advanced Studies in the fall which will help alleviate some crowding in science and advanced-placement classrooms. The center, however, is aimed at offering specialized career and technology courses and won't alleviate crowding in traditional classes.

"In a little more time (the center) is not going to negate the need for another high school to be built at some point in time," Beckham said.

A school district working group evaluating Mount Pleasant's high school and middle school needs thinks the town would like a second high school built by the 2019-20 school year. The committee is recommending a school of about 1,500 students be built at the site of the Wando football stadium at the old Wando campus on Mathis Ferry Road. That means a new stadium would have to be built at the current Wando campus.

The same committee thinks the school district also should start looking for land for a fourth middle school. With a new, larger Laing Middle School under construction, the need for another middle school isn't as pressing, committee chairwoman Kate Darby said.

Darby, who also is a member of the new town committee, said the goal is to work with the district to extend the sales tax and make sure that Mount Pleasant schools are on the district's next building program.

"Everybody agrees that we really want to see the 1 percent sales tax renewed so that a new high school can be built," Darby said.

Historically, she said, Wando has added about 100 students a year. "We can't continue that kind of growth at Wando forever."

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Tags: Education, Wando High School

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