FORT MILL -- Some schoolchildren here must take four school buses a day because some of the district's elementary schools are beyond capacity.
Each of the Fort Mill school district's five elementary schools has a 900-student capacity, but three of the elementary schools -- Gold Hill, Orchard Park and Springfield -- have exceeded that. New students at Gold Hill and Orchard Park arrive at their home school each morning to take shuttle buses to Riverview, now nearing its capacity with 876 students as of Jan. 7.
"It's kinda really cold," observed Caylee Brown, 8, huddled together after school recently with dozens of other Gold Hill Elementary School children awaiting arrival of their school bus from Riverview Elementary.
Hundreds of other Gold Hill children already had boarded their buses to go home. They, too, awaited the shuttle bus carrying about 40 student passengers whose homes are in the Gold Hill zone but who attend Riverview because Gold Hill's enrollment has been frozen due to crowding.
Riverview dismisses students who live in the Gold Hill and Orchard Park zones 15 minutes early at the end of the day. That's so nearly 180 children can board four shuttle buses back to Orchard Park and more than 40 others can ride a bus back to Gold Hill. Then, they disembark and take another bus home or to day care.
School district officials hope voters will approve a March 4 referendum seeking nearly $96 million for new schools and school facilities. The first ballot question seeks $87.25 million for two new elementary schools and a middle school, plus money to purchase land for more schools in the future. The second question seeks $8.718 million for an additional gym at each of the high schools and stadium seating and concessions at Nation Ford High.
Enrollment at Springfield, with 966 students on Jan. 7, will be frozen June 6. New students there will be bused to Fort Mill Elementary, which had room for 127 more children at the Jan. 7 count.
Caylee's friend Amber Mayberry, 9, was bundled up in a hooded coat against a windy chill recently as she waited for her shuttle bus to arrive from Riverview so she could take it to day care. When the thermometer plunges even lower, the children wait for the shuttle inside the cafeteria.
"Sometimes, it's a really long wait and I get bored," she said, "But sometimes, I play with my friends. I'd rather get on my bus and go."
Although Gold Hill staff members want the last bus to leave the bus yard by 2:30 each afternoon, they all were delayed this particular day because the Riverview shuttle did not arrive until about 2:45.
Riverview Principal Annette Chinchilla said that doesn't happen often, but they err on the side of caution.
"We go by name as they get on the bus to make sure they get on," she said. "The only reason they arrive later than 2:30 is if we can't account for a student. Usually, it's because they have a different way of getting home that day and the office wasn't informed."
Teachers are required to give no new instruction during the last 15 minutes of the school day because some children must leave early, she said. One plus is that teachers can give students remedial help during that 15 minutes, she said.
"We try to accentuate the positive aspects," Chinchilla said. "Any time you're having growth and have to freeze schools, it's going to have an impact. The district has allowed us to make it as positive as possible."
Riverview's Jan. 7 enrollment stood at 876 students, just 24 students below the 900 maximum. Due largely to attrition, Gold Hill's enrollment was 817 and Orchard Park's 834 on Jan. 7.
Chuck Epps, a district assistant superintendent, said it's too disruptive to move younger children mid-school year. In the early summer, district officials will study where seats are available and contact parents of Gold Hill and Orchard Park students who currently can't attend their home school.
"We'll choose them in the order they got here closest to the freeze date," Epps said.
Gold Hill Assistant Principal Chris Gardner jokes that it took him "two weeks to figure out how it all works."
"It takes a lot of care to dismiss 820 children," he said as he waited for the Riverview shuttle.
He recounts the tale of a missing youngster for whom adults frantically searched. It turned out the child, who relished being the center of attention, had found a place to hide on the back of the bus where no one could see him.
When the Riverview shuttle arrived at 2:45, the some 40 youngsters disembarked as Caylee, Amber and the other children lined up to board.
"Sometimes, you kind of get tired," Courtney Bagwell, 9, said after she stepped out of the Riverview shuttle.
"There's a lot of noise on the bus, but sometimes, you get to meet your friends," said fellow passenger Justin Evans, 10. "It's fun and annoying."
Like many parents, Jessica Harris's mom, Julia Harris, can't pick her daughter up after school. Shuttle bus numbers are smaller in the morning, when some parents can drop their children off at school.
"If she takes the bus in the morning, she has to catch the bus at about 6:26 or something like that, so I take her," she said. "From a social standpoint, it would have been nice for her to get to go to school with kids in the neighborhood. But she has met a good little friend down the street, so that was good."
As she departed the Riverview shuttle and toted her bookbag to her neighborhood bus in the Gold Hill lot on that chilly afternoon, Jessica, 10, made an observation.
"I wish there was just one bus you could take and go home," she said.