Schools in Rock Hill are expected to start getting bigger the next few years, but it's not the buildings that are growing.
The Rock Hill school board decided it is no longer economically sound to limit the number of students in schools based on the philosophy that it creates a better learning environment.
At a retreat on Saturday, board members agreed to start letting schools fill up to capacity, as long as the student-teacher ratio doesn't go up. That means the district will be able to put off a bond referendum for at least a few more years.
"If you just look at philosophical capacity, we realized we'd be staring down the barrel of a bond referendum," Superintendent Lynn Moody told the board.
"There is no question we want to maintain academic performance, so we'll have to go back and figure out, 'How do we make a larger school feel like a smaller school?'"
The average student-teacher ratio in elementary schools in Rock Hill is 22:1. For middle and high schools, it is 28:1.
Before the last bond referendum in 2005, the school board took on a philosophy that said elementary schools should not have more than 600 students, middle schools should not have more than 900 and high schools should not have more than 1,800. Even if a school could hold more people, officials would try to keep enrollment below those numbers.
For schools like Castle Heights Middle School, with about 886 students and space for 1,150, that's a big difference. For schools like Belleview Elementary, which has about 584 students and space for 600, it's not.
At the time, district administrators said the limits would create an optimal learning environment. But there isn't any data that says small schools are better than big schools. In the absence of that data, board members said allowing schools to fill up to capacity is a better use of taxpayers' money. As long as class size stays the same, officials say students shouldn't notice much difference when their schools start getting more students.
"We wouldn't put more students in an area than it would hold," board chairman Bob Norwood said. "We'll just have to schedule and plan more appropriately."
Some possible affects of larger schools could be more lunch periods or more traveling teachers, who don't have classrooms of their own.
To create a small-school feel, school teachers and administrators will have to work to maintain communication with parents, said Luanne Kokolis, an associate superintendent.
"You have to make sure you have a welcoming school environment, that it's focused on not just student achievement but relationships, that there's opportunities for parents to have free access to share information with teachers and with administrators," she said.
"We want to make sure we maintain that no matter what the size of our schools are."
One possible point of concern for parents could be whether this change means schools will start to get overly full.
"I understand the response to the taxpayers, but at the same time, I look at my tax bill and I see how much is going to the schools; I want them to be proactive," said Greg Brannon, a parent with two children at Saluda Trail Middle and one at South Pointe High. "The last thing I want is for my child to get into a school that's overcrowded. I appreciate what they've done to this point in being proactive and staying ahead of that."
Many elementary schools are expected to reach capacity by 2011. Estimates now put the first middle school reaching capacity in 2013 and the first high school hitting that point in 2014.
When will new schools be needed?
The Rock Hill school board recently decided to drop guidelines that limited the number of students who could attend each school based on philosophy rather than capacity. The change will delay the need to build more schools.
Old philosophy New philosophy
Elementary 2011-2012 Same
Middle 2013-2014 2018-2019
High 2014-2015 2015-2016
*Based on district growth projections