Board considers new middle school for Graniteville

STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Leavelle McCampbell Middle School students make music in teacher Carla Coffin's classroom.

GRANITEVILLE — Kela Sharpton, the Leavelle McCampbell Middle School assistant principal, practically leaped in the air with joy.

Music teacher Carla Coffin grinned and demonstrated two thumbs up. Science teacher Brenda Peacock had already read in the Aiken Standard Wednesday morning – that the Aiken County School Board was seriously looking at building a new school off-site to replace the existing facility – delighting all three educators.

“I hope they do it,” Peacock said. “We need the facilities for the kids, and it would help their morale. The walls, the darkness in the hallways – things like that would help.”

At a board meeting on Tuesday night, the School Board members sounded in agreement with administrators that Graniteville needs a new middle school. They will take a formal vote on Feb. 12 to move back other projects at New Ellenton Middle School and Gloverville Elementary School.

The district’s building plan would call for completion of a new Leavelle McCampbell in about four years at a cost at $22 million, based on current construction costs.

The existing building offers a historic, charming front – its facade is constructed of granite chosen by the old Graniteville Company.

Leavelle McCampbell’s interior, however, is more than feeling its age of nearly 93. Peacock has worked at the school throughout her 14-year career and yes, she loves her kids and appreciates principal Dr. Lloydette Young and the faculty.

But the pipes don’t always work. She has no water in her science lab and gives her students hand wipes before they go to lunch.

The gym, cafeteria and music and band rooms are literally across a street that goes through the campus. The cafeteria has no restrooms for either teachers or students, Coffin said, so everyone has to run to the main building or the gym.

Three levels of stairs can be hard to handle, even for young kids. A few years ago, students on the second and third floors could walk down a ramp in the back of the building to the road to get to the gym and cafeteria.

Then, the ramp was reserved for emergencies, and now it’s off-limits as a potential safety issue. So there’s a lot of traffic on the stairs, and kids are always bumping into each other, said eighth-grader Lauren Brown.

“You can walk on the floor and hear the creaks,” Peacock said. “Our kids are doing well, but it makes teaching more challenging. You have to be creative.”

About three years ago, more than 150 people – many of them Leavelle high school graduates during the pre-1980 days – attended the school’s 90th anniversary. People from the years long gone by acknowledged their emotions, among them Minnie Ferguson.

“I’ve very proud of this school,” she said during the celebration. “It’s amazing to me that it’s still here. Of course, I can hardly believe I’ve lived this long either.”

She was 94 that day and is living history herself, having started first grade at the school in 1923.

Dwight Smith, a first-term School Board member, also graduated from Leavelle in the 1960s, then returned as a coach, teacher and assistant principal. He admits to mixed feelings about pushing back additions to Gloverville Elementary School, where he served as principal for eight years. But he saw a new, large wing at North Augusta Middle School in 2011 and the difference it made.

“I see what our kids are going through,” he said. “I just felt it’s time, but it’s still very difficult.”

The school district and School Board had seen Leavelle’s poor condition prior to the 2010 school board referendum that would have impacted as many as eight schools. Leavelle was among them in a facilities election that failed by a huge margin.

“We just kept looking to find the right time,” said Deputy Superintendent David Caver. “It’s not that the others are not needed, but this one was prioritized.”

Putting funds into the current Leavelle would be like fixing an old house with an infrastructure in dire need. But a new school “has the potential to have an impact on that community,” Caver said. “We’ve seen growth in the area.”

The district closed the old Byrd Elementary School in 2008 – itself nearly 60 years old – and opened a modern school on Bettis Academy Road that year. The new Byrd definitely has made its presence felt. The original student projections were for about 600 students; Byrd now has 800 and is at capacity.

“I graduated from Leavelle in 1980,” said Byrd Principal Russell Gunter. “And my sons went through there in middle school, but it would be hard to bring it up to date.”

If the project goes through as expected, a new middle school would move to the same area next to Byrd.

“We would have so much more communication between the two schools,” Peacock said.