Reexamining Sunset Park

Fourth-grader Tyriq Branham uses the smart board during Katie Price's math class Wednesday at Sunset Park Elementary School in Rock Hill.
Fourth-grader Tyriq Branham uses the smart board during Katie Price's math class Wednesday at Sunset Park Elementary School in Rock Hill.

Four years after Sunset Park Elementary School began a year-round schedule, the Rock Hill school board tonight appears ready to switch the school back to a traditional calendar.

Enrollment at Sunset Park has continued to decline under the modified calendar, which was intended to attract more students to the science and technology-focused school.

Principal Tammy White recommended the board approve the calendar change because of the year-round schedule's failure to attract students. Right now, students have several three-week breaks, which shortens the long summer break.

Sunset Park is a school of choice, which means parents can decide to send their children there even if they are zoned to attend another school. Likewise, parents can pull their children out of Sunset Park if they would rather they go somewhere else.

"What we've got to do is redefine what this magnet is and what it is about Sunset Park that will make it different, that will be a draw for this community," White said.

Changing the calendar back to a traditional schedule will open the door to more questions. Should the school remain a school of choice, and should its focus continue to be on science and technology? It also begs the question of why parents are leaving in the first place.

'An image problem'

The demographics of Sunset Park are different than at many other elementary schools:

• Of the 267 students enrolled at Sunset Park, fewer than half live in the school's attendance zone.

• 70.8 percent of the students are black, compared to most other elementary schools, which range from 25 percent to 40 percent.

• 67 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced lunches, a measure of poverty.

If parents did not have the choice to move their children out of and into Sunset Park, only 45 percent of students would receive free or reduced-priced lunches -- a figure that's much closer to the Rock Hill district average.

Sunset Park's attendance zone includes 324 students, but only 123 of those attend the school.

In a survey of parents who opted out of Sunset Park, nearly half said they left because of the year-round calendar. But only 7 percent said they would go back to the school if the calendar changed.

School board members explained this discrepancy in a variety of ways. Some said that families become attached to their new schools. Others said it's about convenience. The lack of a year-round middle school makes scheduling difficult for families who have more than one child, they said.

Several people also said there could be misconceptions of Sunset Park.

"I think it has to do with an image problem from the past," school board Chairman Bob Norwood said, citing racial issues as part of the equation.

Sunset Park is located in a historically black neighborhood. It's also one of the district's older school buildings, officials said.

Superintendent Lynn Moody said district officials will look at ways to beautify the outside of the building to make the school more physically attractive. Performance will have to improve to make the school more academically attractive, she said.

"Yes, there are some images, there are some perceptions that we will have to overcome," Moody said. "And the only way to do that is to put in something so unique that people are willing to overlook those perceptions because they think what their child will get is worth it."

White, the principal, last week visited a successful magnet program in Wake County, N.C., to get ideas. That school is an active-learning magnet, which means the students do more hands-on learning, both at the school and throughout the community.

White said she will continue to explore ideas to see what would work best at Sunset Park. The point of a magnet school, she said, is to have an area of focus that is different than the traditional schools. A magnet, by definition, should attract people to it.

Moody said it is still up in the air whether a new magnet program would cover all of the curriculum or would continue to focus on science and technology as the school does now.

The school specializes in integrating science and technology into all subject areas and has interactive boards in all classrooms. Staff and teaching interns from Winthrop University's College of Education work with staff and students there to combine their expertise.

Thomas Colter, a retired teacher who used to teach part-time at Sunset Park and still lives nearby, said there is the potential for a lot of community support from people living in surrounding neighborhoods. Colter said that if people knew the school's needs, they would be happy to step up and lend a hand.

Sunset Park is an important part of the community, he said.

"We fought hard to keep this school in the community because what makes up the community is the home, the church and the school," Colter said. "Sunset Park is the only black school that's left in the black community."