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Rock Hill schools plan more choice for students

As Rock Hill schools continue adding a variety of academic options, two campuses are turning their focus to science, technology, engineering and math, while another opens its elementary International Baccalaureate program to any student in the district.

Starting in August 2012, Oakdale Elementary and Saluda Trail Middle will be STEM magnet schools. Rosewood Elementary will be a "school of choice."

Any Rock Hill student will be able to attend. Because Oakdale and Saluda Trail are magnets, they will provide transportation to and from school for students living outside the attendance area.

Students outside of Rosewood's attendance zone will have to find their own transportation.

For now, that's all the district can afford, Associate Superintendent Luanne Kokolis said.

"We will monitor transportation costs and the number of shuttles needed," she said. "It may be possible in the future to offer transportation to choice schools. ... We are starting small and will determine how we move forward after reviewing the start up (of) 2012-2013."

"Choice" among South Carolina schools has become a hot topic in recent years, particularly as traditional public schools face increased competition for students from a growing number of charter and virtual schools.

Some proponents, including former state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and current S.C. Superintendent Mick Zais, have argued in favor of erasing district boundaries so that students are free to attend wherever they choose. While that notion has yet to gain traction, educational options within districts are increasing.

York County's four school systems have been slower than some districts to expand such options. But Rock Hill schools have picked up the pace.

By August, the district in five years will have gone from just one school of choice to nine.

The district has been criticized for failing to provide transportation to most of its choice programs. Parents and school board members have raised concerns that students whose families can't drive them across town are missing out.

Of the nine choice programs available next school year, only Sunset Park, Oakdale and Saluda Trail will offer transportation.

Families will have a chance to browse the available options at a choice fair Nov. 17 at the district's Flexible Learning Center.

"It's designed to help meet the needs of students because all students are unique," said Sylvia Berry, who oversees the district's choice programs.

STEM program

Oakdale and Saluda Trail are creating a pipeline for science, technology, engineering and math.

Students who start in the elementary STEM program at Oakdale will be able to continue through middle school.

It was a natural fit, Oakdale Principal Neil McVann said, because all of the school's fifth-graders move on to Saluda Trail.

The new theme will permeate the curriculum at both schools. English and social studies teachers, for example, will adopt more hands-on, project-oriented assignments.

The programs are in early stages and still taking shape.

McVann and Saluda Trail Principal Brenda Campbell have taken staff and parents on tours of STEM schools in the Carolinas.

Saluda Trail is a school of choice for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme.

While Campbell plans to keep IB tenets such as helping students develop traits of productive, global citizens, the school's new focus will be STEM. Parents who want an official IB Middle Years program can send students to Sullivan Middle, which will be Rock Hill's only school of choice for Middle Years IB.

Saluda Trail families should expect a focus on problem-solving and a "big infusion of technology," she said.

That means new clubs, such as a competitive robotics team.

Sixth-grade science teacher Chandra Payne is testing a program called eCybermission, sponsored by the U.S. Army. Students work in groups to identify a problem, then use STEM strategies to research and conduct experiments to find a solution.

Payne said she's excited about moving to STEM.

"That's where the jobs of the future are going to be," she said. "If you can't problem-solve and think on your own, you're going to have trouble getting out in the work force."

Elementary IB

Since 2002, Rosewood has been Rock Hill's only school offering the IB Primary Years Programme.

It hasn't been open to all Rock Hill students because the school has always been filled to capacity.

But after a couple reassignments and openings at other schools of choice, Principal Stephen Ward said it looks like 20 to 30 seats will be open to students outside the attendance area.

IB teachers craft lessons with the goal of teaching children to be thoughtful and productive citizens with a global awareness.

A lesson on World War I, for instance, would include more than just the point of view of the United States.

"We also expose children to how the world saw World War I," Ward said. "Our goal is to develop children's natural curiosity."

Rosewood students also get 30 minutes of French every day. Lessons in science and social studies are taught in French.

Ward is expanding that program next school year to include two kindergarten classes where students will spend half the day in French immersion.

When Rosewood opens to all students, it means that a child could start an IB education in kindergarten, continue to Sullivan, then graduate with an IB diploma from one of the district's three high schools.

"We're excited," he said. "It gives parents opportunities to have a choice. I just wish we had more capacity."