Riverwalk Academy breaks ground on new $10 million York County school

Sixth-grade students at Riverwalk Academy learned a lesson Monday you won’t find in the science books – rain can knock down helium.

The lesson came as the students released star-shaped balloons during the groundbreaking of the academy’s soon-to-be permanent home, a $10 million campus at the corner of Mount Gallant Road and Hands Mill Highway in the Newport area.

The rain beat down the balloons as they attempted to rise, pushing them to the ground. A strong wind sent the balloons skittering across the ground with the sixth-graders in pursuit.

“I didn’t know rain was heavier than helium,” said Brian Keith, president and chairman of the academy’s board and pastor of Faith Assembly of God Church.

Keith, Riverwalk Academy principal Charlie French, other board members, parents and students gathered underneath a tent Monday for the groundbreaking ceremony. When it came time for the ceremonial turning of the shovels, a few ventured out of tent with umbrellas in one hand, shovels in the other. Behind them were earth-moving equipment and mud on land that was once Lee’s Nursery.

Weather permitting, Riverwalk Academy hopes to open its permanent home in the fall of 2016.

“We’re finally going to have a place to call home,” French said.

Riverwalk Academy opened in August 2014 as a public charter school. It is funded by the S.C. Department of Education with enrollment open to any student in South Carolina. Its temporary home is the former Trinity Christian School in Rock Hill.

The school has 300 students in kindergarten through sixth grades. Its enrollment target for the new location is 575 students in grade kindergarten through seventh. The plan is to add a grade each year. Projected enrollment when it has all the high school grades is about 1,200 students.

The open enrollment lottery for the 2016 school year closes Dec. 8. Applications are online at

The new school is being built with an open, pod concept. There will be a pod for each grade. There will be one large room for collaboration and two smaller classrooms for other instruction. The first phase of construction will have nine pods. A second phase will add four pods and a gymnasium.

The open concept was one of keys for investor HighMark School Development of Utah. HighMark’s director of project development, David Bourne, said three things sold them on Riverwalk Academy: the quality of its board, its management and its curriculum. HighMark School Development focuses on charter schools, helping from development and organization to construction.

HighMark has developed charter schools in 13 states, including, in South Carolina, the Lowcountry Leadership School in Hollywood.

Riverwalk’s curriculum is built around project-based learning, a process where students use an extended inquiry process to study carefully designed products and tasks. The school meets all state education standards and students take the same state tests as students at other public schools.

Included in the upcoming sixth-grade lessons, said French, will be discussion and inquiry as to why the helium-filled balloons failed to rise in the rain.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw