A first look at the peninsula’s new 21st century schools 

Construction to begin this fall, buildings to open in Aug. 2013

In the midst of the recent icepocalypse on Jan. 10, there wasn't much public work going on. Students and teachers stayed home and city officers were closed by mid-morning. But leading district officials and city staff were still on the job. On that frosty morning, project managers briefed the mayor on the preliminary designs for four of the peninsula's elementary schools.

In 2010, the district condemned the historic school sites at Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive Academy, Memminger Elementary, and James Simons Elementary over seismic concerns. It moved hundreds of downtown students to temporary space in North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. In November, voters approved a host of construction projects, including more than $100 million to rebuild the downtown schools by August 2013. Now, the district is rolling out the floorplans and design sketches for this new generation of downtown schools.

"We have these trophy properties with worn out schools," says Bill Lewis, the district's chief operating officer for capital programs. "We need to create trophy schools."

Parents and community leaders, including the mayor, were initially weary of the district's speed in shuffling students out in the run-up to the sales tax referendum. There are still some doubters, but now that decisions have been made and votes have been counted, the attention has largely turned to what we should be seeing in two years — bigger buildings with modern resources.

Early skepticism from downtown residents is nothing new to contractor Robert Faust, who also worked on the new Burke High School and Sanders Clyde Elementary. "I heard that when we built Burke and I heard it when we built Sanders Clyde. When they see the progress with designs, they'll realize we're really moving through with this thing."

New buildings are going to mean new opportunities for programs. In many cases the schools have had to make their buildings work even as educational needs changed. And we're not just talking about smartboards and computer labs. Some of these schools were built before kindergarten was incorporated into daily programs. The opportunities are an exciting proposition for administrators like Anthony Dixon, the principal at Memminger Elementary.

"All the bells and whistles," he says of designs. "The classroom space for students and teachers to spread out, a multi-purpose room for assemblies and performances, and green space."

But those bells and whistles come with challenges. First, there's the lack of space. In a growing suburb, the district has several acres for a large school, ample parking, and recreational space. That's not the case in these downtown communities — at Buist Academy, for example, the district has just about an acre to work with.

It has required district staff to coordinate with the state's Office of School Facilities, which requires certain sizes for classrooms and other demands — like a gymnasium for schools like Buist with middle school students.

"All of the sudden our square footage increases, like in the case of Memminger, it's going from 47,000 ft. to 70,000 ft.," Faust says. "Enrollments the same, but those are the parameters."

As the mayor's frost-covered briefing shows, the district has involved the city since the beginning to make sure expectations are met the first go-round when projects are presented for architectural approval in the coming months. To that effort, city planners provided a list of unique expectations regarding each site. The city wanted to see historical portions of the schools preserved as much as possible, as well as more opportunities for community use after school hours.

Construction at each site is expected to begin this fall. The spring and summer will mostly be spent huddling with city staff and zoning and architecture boards for approval. Meanwhile, the district will continue to meet with each school's staff and school improvement council and launch new websites for each project, now that there is something to show off. Moving forward, Faust says it's 2013 or bust. "When August comes you either have it or you don't."

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