Fort Mill High School to undergo transformation

In the latest step in Fort Mill’s school construction boom, the school board voted Tuesday to approve final plans for extensive renovations at Fort Mill High School, which will get underway “as soon as possible,” assistant superintendent Tommy Schmolze said.

Unlike Nation Ford High School, which was built with space for additional construction, the Fort Mill High School site has unique challenges, he said. The original building was built in 1987. In later years, an annex was added, a second building detached from the main building. The high school sits on the same campus as Riverview Elementary at U.S. 21 and Harris Road.

In December, Riverview Elementary will move from its current building into one going up on Spratt Street. By the time students return after the summer for the 2015-2016 school year, the entire Fort Mill High School campus will be “flipped.”

The main entrance to the school will be moved from Munn Road to S.C. 21 and will include the installation of a traffic light by the S.C. Department of Transportation, Schmolze said.

Traffic is a huge problem right now, said Fort Mill High Principal Dee Christopher. All buses, student drivers and car riders have to enter on Munn Road. The new entrance will put buses and student drivers on different entrances on Munn Road, with an entrance for car riders on S.C. 21.

“That splits up your car traffic significantly,” Schmolze said.

When people drive through the main entrance on S.C. 21, the first thing they will see is the new central office space, a large building with lots of glass that shows clearly where the front door of the school is, Schmolze said. As it is now, many people have a hard time finding the main entrance.

Flipping the campus also helps with security, which was the first thing board members considered when going through the design process, Christopher said.

“By flipping the campus we can keep all the student movement, all the visitors, we can keep all of that out in front of us,” he said.

For additional security, a wall will go up around most of the property so administrators can easily monitor who is coming and going on campus. As with most schools these days, security vestibules will prevent any non-student from entering the buildings without signing in and presenting identification.

Besides the new office space and entrance, the other significant changes will come to the Riverview Elementary building, which was built in 1975. The space needs to be retrofitted for high school use with a new sprinkler system and the replacement of pieces that are “little-kid-sized,” like the toilets, for older students.

Many of the younger grades’ classrooms will be converted into science labs, Schmolze said, because they already have water hookups. The gym will be modified for the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. The cafeteria will stay as it is and serve as the second cafeteria on campus.

Over in the main high school building, what used to be the JROTC space will become additional space for coaches’ offices and athletics.

Adding the additional space will allow the school to eventually have 18 to 20 teachers in each core subject area, Christopher said. The old Riverview building also will hold an additional guidance office suite.

While the Riverview space will feature a number of ninth-grade classes, it is by no means a “ninth-grade academy,” Christopher said.

“We really like to immerse our ninth graders in the culture of Fort Mill High School from the beginning,” he said. Separating them in their own building would take away from that experience.

The cost of the renovations is estimated at $17.1 million, Schmolze said. Much of that came from a 2013 bond referendum, but the board found some of it in other places in the budget. In future years, as more money becomes available, the high school will make additional tweaks, such as modifying the old office space into a new media center.

The other transformation most people probably will take notice of is the upgrade of Bob Jones Stadium, which already is impressive because of the way it sits in a small valley, Christopher said. It will get a new facade, new gates and other improvements.

It has a “true 'Friday Night Lights' ” look to it, Schmolze said, and these improvements will modernize the facility.

Construction on all these elements is slated to begin as soon as possible.

“There’s no good time for construction on an occupied campus,” Schmolze said, but safety measures will be in place to keep students away from construction zones.

The main goal of the additions is to increase the capacity of the high school to 2,400 students. As the Fort Mill school district population continues to grow rapidly, the district has planned for Fort Mill, Nation Ford and a third high school to each hold a maximum of 2,400 students, Schmolze said. The district’s demographers have said the district will never have more than 7,200 students, so that should be enough capacity.

Nation Ford High School has about 1,760 students this year, while Fort Mill High School has about 1,865 students.

Without the expansions at Fort Mill and Nation Ford, which is getting an additional wing, the district would have to look at building a fourth high school, not just a third, Schmolze said. The expansions are intended to eliminate that need.

But besides the need for space, Christopher said, the Fort Mill High School facelift will do a lot for the students and the school community at large.

“There’s already a lot of pride in our school,” he said. “Now, there will be a new sense of pride associated with our campus.”