Grant aids bid for charter school

CHESTER -- A Chester group hoping to open a charter high school in the old S.L. Finley Center landed a key grant Thursday, the first step toward making the school a reality.

The state Department of Education awarded a $5,000 grant to a group of Chester community leaders who want to open the S.L. Finley Alternative School, which they hope to open by the 2009-2010 school year. The grant will help local leaders develop an application for a charter school.

The idea is to give parents another educational option for their children for grades 9-12, said Yvette DeShay, who wrote the grant application. The school will offer smaller class sizes and life skills training.

"The dropout rates are astronomical," she said of Chester County's schools. "Kids are just not getting what they need."

DeShay lives in Columbia but works with a Chester youth group where most kids dropped out of high school because they didn't think they could keep up or accomplish anything, she said.

"The problem now in Chester is these kids are out of school, they're standing on the corner, they're forming gangs," she said. "And this is a way to try to help those who really want to get an education but don't want to be left behind."

The school would initially accommodate about 80 students in the 2009-2010 school year, DeShay said. The school would be housed in the Finley Center and, as it grows, would offer everything from athletics to a drumline, everything offered in a mainstream public school.

Charter schools belong to the public school system, but they are designed by parents, educators and other community leaders. The schools are sponsored by the local school board or the South Carolina Public Charter School District's board. The sponsoring boards monitor the schools. These schools also have some leeway when following local mandates and state regulations.

South Carolina's 29 charter schools serve about 5,200 students. Chester County has one charter school, the Academy for Teaching and Learning, which serves nearly 270 students in grades K-8, which opened in 2006.

DeShay said community leaders, including several groups associated with the S.L. Finley Center, are working on the project. One of those groups, the S.L. Finley Restoration Association, hopes to acquire the building from the school district.

The concept of placing a school in the Finley Center is just the latest plan for the building that was once Chester's all-black high school.

Built in the 1950s, the former high school later housed a middle school. It was vacated in 1998. The center, which sits on Caldwell Street, most recently housed the city's recreation department, but city leaders closed Finley's doors in June because of concerns about mold in the building.

City officials have said the best move is to let go of the building -- which is leased from the Chester County school district -- because the city just can't afford the repairs.

The task of restoring the center is daunting, one that will require thousands of dollars for renovations. Community leaders hope to pay for that through fundraisers and community contributions, not to mention standard education funding.

The school is simply an idea now -- school planners haven't even discussed the matter with the Chester County school board -- but leaders hope the grant is a start.

"There's a lot of planning for us to do," said the Rev. Curtis Washington, DeShay's brother and pastor of the Temple of Praise Word Deliverance on Saluda Street who birthed the idea. "We have a lot of support from a lot of the alumni of Chester Finley high school.

Washington said he's been talking to another pastor with Columbia-based Clergy for Educational Options, a nonprofit group of black churches, about his plans. He even went to Milwaukee in September to look at charter schools there.

Chester County school board member Richard Hughes said Thursday he hadn't heard anything about the charter school plan. Other board members couldn't be reached.

Although the school board hasn't formally been notified about the plan, district Superintendent Larry Heath was told, Washington said. Heath could not be reached for comment Thursday.