Rock Hill school leaders recommend language immersion at Sullivan Middle

In this file photo, second grade Spanish immersion students participate in a lesson at Ebinport Elementary School.
In this file photo, second grade Spanish immersion students participate in a lesson at Ebinport Elementary School.

School district leaders plan to recommend construction of an elementary language immersion academy at Sullivan Middle School instead of a new school for the program.

Superintendent Kelly Pew has recommended consolidating the Spanish language immersion school choice programs at Ebinport and Richmond Drive elementary schools and the French immersion program at Rosewood Elementary into one site. Choice schools are those that students choose to attend.

Pew and other Rock Hill school district leaders said that after studying the issue with a panel of teachers, parents and community leaders and considering the costs, that the Sullivan site is the best option.

“It allows us the opportunity to put in the components that our committee felt were important, and that makes a language immersion school different than a traditional elementary school,” Pew said after a school board workshop on the issue Monday.

Some of the components discussed by the committee include shared teacher planning spaces and break-out space near classrooms for student collaboration and project-based learning.

Pew said it also allows the district to use unoccupied space at Sullivan Middle, which leaders say has an 827-student enrollment in grades six to eight and a capacity for 1,352 students.

Pew said students in the kindergarten to fifth-grade elementary language immersion program, targeted to hold 900 students, would be separated from the roughly 900 middle school students.

Deputy Superintendent Tony Cox told school board members the new construction would cost $18 million; an additional $6 million has already been earmarked for updates to the Sullivan building.

Cox said less than 10 percent of the $6 million earmarked for Sullivan renovations could be used to renovate existing space for fourth- and fifth-grade immersion students.

He said leaders who have considered different locations believe an addition on the Cherry Road side of the Sullivan building, where the track and field is located, is the best option.

Cox and other leaders said the Sullivan addition would allow the immersion program and middle school to economize by sharing common spaces, such as cafeteria and library areas.

However, he said exactly how the two school programs would share those areas is still being discussed. “We haven’t worked out a lot of those details yet,” he said.

Cox said the district’s five-year plan calls for a $16 million elementary school for enrollment growth. If the plan is approved by the Rock Hill school board, that proposed school “will be converted to be the new addition to Sullivan,” he said.

He said the roughly $2 million remainder of money to build the immersion academy would come from a district contingency fund.

Pew said the immersion programs would remain at the three elementary schools for the 2016-17 school year.

Jim Vining, school board chairman, questioned Pew about the justification for building a language immersion academy. “Twenty million is a lot of money to spend when you have so many schools that are under utilized,” Vining said.

Although the three language immersion elementary schools are at or near student capacity, other Rock Hill elementary schools are below capacity by as much as 200 students.

Some of the below-capacity schools include Belleview, Finley Road, Lesslie, Mount Gallant, Oakdale, Sunset Park and York Road elementary schools, according to October 2015 district enrollment data.

All five Rock Hill middle schools and South Pointe High School also are significantly below student capacity, according to the district’s enrollment data.

Vining said choice schools in other communities have better student demographics than non-choice schools within the same district. He said he is concerned about the impact of creating Rock Hill choice schools on schools without such programs.

“If it doesn’t happen in our district, we will be the first district in the country that doesn’t have a loss in the demographics” at non-choice schools, Vining said.

Pew responded to Vining’s concerns, saying leaders will continue to look at how to increase enrollment at under-capacity schools.

One option she has recommended is expanding a school choice fine arts program, offered at Northside Elementary, to York Road Elementary and Rawlinson Road Middle schools.

Pew said parents have been adamant in that they did not want rezoning to balance school enrollment.

Pew said consolidating the immersion programs allows teachers to collaborate in planning activities and gives the school flexibility to adjust class sizes. A smaller immersion program sometimes has odd class sizes with little ability to make adjustments, she said.

She said district leaders can talk about how to work with non-choice schools. She noted that Rock Hill has schools with lower demographics that perform well academically.

Board member Jane Sharp said that discussion needs to happen.

“We need to talk about it before we do it,” Sharp said, referring to the impact of creating choice programs on other schools. “Otherwise, I can’t vote for it.”

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077