Fort Mill middle schools face space crunch

Students at Springfield Middle School in Fort Mill crowd the hall as they head to their buses recently. Below, Springfield Middle students wait for their rides after school.
Students at Springfield Middle School in Fort Mill crowd the hall as they head to their buses recently. Below, Springfield Middle students wait for their rides after school.

FORT MILL -- Springfield Middle School is "beginning to feel the pinch," and Fort Mill Middle is experiencing "the calm before the storm," say principals at those two schools.

Cramping that affects class size in the Fort Mill school district's three middle schools is not as obvious as in the district's elementary schools, where some closets have been ventilated and turned into offices and classrooms. Enrollment at two of Fort Mill's elementary schools has been frozen, and a third will cap enrollment June 6.

But those children will become middle school students in the next several years, and that is just part of the crunch. All three middle schools will serve large housing developments either under way or about to begin construction in their attendance zones.

The Catawba Regional Council of Governments projects that Fort Mill's middle schools, which had 2,036 students last month, will have 2,120 in September. Twenty neighborhoods are under construction within the school district, according to the council.

A fourth middle school is included in the district's March 4 bond vote because growth analysts predict Fort Mill will need one in 2010.

District residents will vote on issuance of bonds totaling more than $95.9 million in two questions. The first seeks $87.25 million for a fourth middle school and eighth and ninth elementary schools, plus land acquisition for future schools. The second question asks $8.718 million for an additional gym at each high school and a stadium at Nation Ford High.

"I think we'll be at capacity by the end of the next school year or before," Springfield Middle School Assistant Principal Grey Young said of his school's 900-student capacity. "We're beginning to feel the pinch."

Fort Mill and Gold Hill were at the 900-student capacity when Springfield Middle opened last school year. Springfield added three teachers immediately because enrollment was larger than expected on opening day.

By the end of the 2006-2007 school year, the new middle school had 659 students. On Monday, Springfield Middle School had 745 students.

"Last year, we had open classrooms that we could use for extra things," Young said. "All the rooms are filled now. Our ESL (English as a second language) teacher is sharing an office this year, and we have another one arriving next year."

Springfield Elementary, over capacity and operating with six mobile classrooms, feeds all of its students into Springfield Middle. Gold Hill Elementary also sends some of its students to Springfield, and Riverview provides a handful.

The Springfield schools sit in a fast-growing part of the district. The large Springfield housing development is not yet completed, but Springfield Middle Principal Keith Griffin said the greatest growth is arriving from the approximate 900-acre Coulston housing development behind Regent Park and continuing to Lancaster County.

"If this bond referendum doesn't pass, were going to be in big trouble because we don't have anywhere to put all the students in two years if growth continues," Griffin said. "We could become a mobile city."

The fourth middle school's site is as yet undetermined. Site preparation is under way for the sixth elementary school next to Nation Ford High. The site, purchased from Coulston with money the district provided through a mortgage, is large enough and has been approved for a middle school, as well. However, district officials are looking elsewhere for middle school sites.

"A lot of the area in the southeast portion of the district is not developed," said Jim Britton, project director for Southern Management Group, the district's construction consultant. "We are looking in that general area for a middle school site."

The district needs about 20 acres for an elementary school and 30 to 35 for a middle school.

"Three pieces of property we are currently reviewing are donations," Britton said, adding that they are all elementary school sites.

Fort Mill Middle in the southeastern area above Doby's Bridge Road has the lowest middle school enrollment, with 598 students on Monday. However, Principal Tommy Schmolze is waiting for the "boom."

Site development is ongoing for the roughly 1,000-home Massey development along Doby's Bridge. Other housing developments also have been approved near there, and construction has begun on others.

"We have people that register their children here, and we look at the street number and think, 'Where is that street?'" Schmolze said. "It's hard to keep up. People have bought some of the lots and are building homes and planning to move in over the summer. We'll start seeing the impact at the beginning of the next school year."

Problems with funding and route location for Fort Mill's southern bypass could delay the Massey development and also throw a wrench in a school site donation the district had anticipated, district Superintendent Keith Callicutt said.

"Any school three years off, the location is not exact," Callicutt said. "There are too many variables. We know we will need all these elementary schools. Growth projections tell us that by 2010, the middle school will be needed, as well."

Gold Hill Middle school in the district's northwest quadrant had an enrollment of 678 on Monday.

A number of housing developments also are planned or under way in that area. Baxter Village, off Interstate 77 at Exit 85, is not yet completed and Gardendale is expected to nearly double the size of Tega Cay with more than 400 acres and about 830 homes to be built over the next seven years. That is in addition to a number of other residential developments in that area.

"We are not in as steep a growth pattern right now," Britton said, "but Fort Mill is one of the areas in the nation still growing and has positive numbers. Fort Mill is just a very desirable place to live, mostly because of the schools."