Amid concerns about excluding children, four Rock Hill schools won approval Monday to open their doors to interested students across the city.
The seven-member school board voted unanimously to make two elementary schools - Richmond Drive and Ebinport - and two middle schools - Sullivan and Saluda Trail - "schools of choice," campuses offering an unusual curriculum open to any student in the district. The change will start in August.
Officials don't expect the changes to cost extra because schools are offering access to existing programs.
Ebinport and Richmond Drive will expand a Spanish language program and take about 100 more students. Children get 20 to 30 minutes of Spanish language instruction a day, some from a teacher and some from videos. The schools' principals plan to launch an optional "partial immersion" program for kindergarteners in 2012, in which students would learn half of their lessons in Spanish.
Learning languages is critical for children today because they'll be competing for jobs globally with students in other countries who are at least bilingual, Ebinport Principal Shane Goodwin said.
"We cannot continue to pretend English is the only language we have to speak," he said.
Sullivan and Saluda Trail offer an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program, emphasizing students' national and cultural identity while stressing international awareness. For all three years, students build portfolios of work and accomplishments in eight courses: foreign language, humanities, arts, physical education, technology, math, science and English. They perform community service projects to learn responsibility and how to contribute to society.
Both schools have been IB-approved for years.
The program is "for all students at the schools," Saluda Trail Principal Brenda Campbell said. "This is not a school within a school. It's not for a select group of children."
Yet some worry that students will be left out. Any students in the district can apply to attend one of Rock Hill's seven schools of choice as long as they have a ride. Buses only transport students living in school's attendance area.
That bothers Roy Collins, a parent of a junior at Rock Hill High. Collins asked the board how they plan to address that issue.
A working single parent, for example, might want to send children to a choice school but be unable to drive them across town, he said after the meeting.
"You're going to have a pocket of students that's going to be left behind because of transportation," he said. "They won't have the opportunity for that advanced level of education."
School board member Jane Sharp shares his concern.
It "goes to the heart of the equity issue," said Sharp, who asked officials to research how much it would cost to offer transportation.
In South Carolina, that's a challenge, Superintendent Lynn Moody said, because the state runs all school buses. To offer a ride to students leaving their assigned school for a choice campus, "we would have to take all of that on ourselves," she said.
Board Chairman Bob Norwood suggested the district survey students to see how many want to attend a school of choice but don't have a ride.
"We'll take the challenge and go back and dig a little further," Moody said.
Changes at Ebinport, Richmond Drive, Saluda Trail and Sullivan will more than double the city's "choice" schools, which include Northside Elementary School of the Arts, Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies and The Children's School at Sylvia Circle, which offers a hybrid Montessori program.
The board also re-elected Bob Norwood as chairman and Jim Vining as vice chairman.