By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
After four long and sometimes bitter years, the children of Sullivan’s, Isle of Palms, Goat and Dewee’s islands finally have their new school. And what a school it is.
Although it doesn’t officially open until school starts on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. The Island Eye News was able to take a peek inside, under the watch of principal Susan King, and get the scoop on the new school and what lies in wait for the students and their parents next week.
The first thing that strikes you as you walk in the entrance of SIES is a sense of light and openness.
There are large windows looking into all the classrooms and you can see straight through to the other side of the building, where the ocean lies, just beyond the maritime forest.
This proximity to Mother Nature’s swimming pool is deeply engrained into the building, its aesthetic and its purpose. As a Coastal Environment partial magnet, part of the school’s vision is to “create inquiry based learners equipped with the skills to explore and contribute as stewards of the Earth and environment.”
The concept of water, the ocean, the beach and all that inhabit them features heavily throughout the building’s design and décor.
From the occasional porthole window (“My idea,” says King. “Not everyone was crazy about them, but I think it gives a sense of whimsy”) and the 1,000 gallon touch tank that will be filled with sea creatures, to the many variations of blues, greens, yellows and pink (yes pink!) paint that adorn its walls and floors this is truly a school unlike any other.
As King walked us through the building, describing the different elements, each inevitably came back to a teacher. The staff it seems was intimately involved with the school’s design, and King is clearly incredibly proud of what has been achieved.
“The big thing with this building is the flexibility of the spaces,” she said. “The form of the building, the idea of using spaces in multiple groups. It’s a direction the whole of education is moving in. Using the outdoors in our teaching is a key element.
Having children be more aware of the real world, being out in nature, blended with technology.”
The divide between indoors and outdoors is wonderfully blurred in the school. Each grade has been given a theme connected to the outdoors, and the classrooms are painted in line with that.
“The grades each represent a different ecosystem,” King said. “4th and 5th are the ocean, 3rd is the salt marsh, 1st and 2nd the maritime forest and Kindergarten the beach.”
The blues, greens and yellows of the walls are complimented by teal blue seats, which create a feeling that the blue skies and green trees which peer in through all the windows, are actually right there in the room with you.
“I love working with color,” King said. “The color for each grade is a unique idea, it will provide a sense of community, a sense of where I am.”
There are two “learning balconies” where the students will have lessons outdoors, overlooking the beach, and an outdoor classroom under the school, which offers the opportunity to work outside, rain or shine.
And of course the maritime forest and beach, with all the educational opportunities they offer, are literally a stone’s throw away.
The culmination of close to five years of planning and a great deal of teacher involvement, SIES has a number of unique and carefully thought out features that are sure to delight and inspire its students:
• A Wet Lab: What every school needs is a room with a drain in the floor. This specially designed lab will allow students to get their hands dirty with Mother Nature. The centerpieces are the three, 50 gallon touch tanks—one saltwater, one freshwater, one brackish water—and the 1,000 gallon tank, where students can put the creatures they discover while seining the ocean. The tanks will all be portable, so they can roll between classrooms.
• Two Learning Balconies: King is working with Green Rooftop Outfitters to transform the two large balconies into outdoor classrooms. There will be six planters on each balcony, three with different types of native grasses and three for the students to plant in. “We’ll also have a fabulous camera up here that can shoot out in the ocean, as well as a telescope,” King said.
• Teaching Walls: SIES boasts the newest version of the CCSD teacher designed classroom tool known as a Teaching Wall. Essentially a whole wall dedicated to shelving, white boards and a smart board, the device puts all of the teacher’s tools within easy reach while he or she is teaching. It also frees up the rest of the room from the clutter of cupboards, creating more space for the students. The Teaching Wall allows the teacher to stage each portion of the lesson right behind him or her, because the white boards slide to revel shelving and cupboards behind. The wall also stores and charges all the students iPads.
• 1 to 1 iPad program: iPads are fully integrated into the school’s teaching methods. “We took an iPad training class this summer and it really changed the way I saw the iPad,” King said. “It enables the teacher to provide structure and facilitate the lesson, while allowing the student to take more responsibility for their own learning. It’s not for math drills, it’s a tool for projects and research.
• Bathrooms: The student bathrooms have been designed specifically to allow the teachers to be able to see the children when they are not in the stalls, helping minimize any opportunities for bullying.
• Small Group Rooms: Several of the larger classrooms have small group rooms attached to them. This was another teacher initiative and will allow a teacher to break a group out of the main class to work on an individual project. The teachers also have a number of shared teacher workrooms scattered throughout the school where there will be printers and other tools they need to plan their lessons.
• Outdoor Classroom: The entire space beneath the school, which is open due to the school being in a flood zone, will be transformed into an outdoor classroom, complete with a tricycle track. It’s still under construction, but will eventually provide a large space for classes to be able to work outdoors regardless of the weather.
• State of the Art Kitchen: SIES is one of the first schools to implement a special, healthy variety-based menu, which features a salad and soup bar.“ There is a lot of emphasis on wellness and nutrition,” King said. “And kids will eat on real trays, not Styrofoam.”
• Multi-Purpose Room: A staple in all modern schools, this large space can be divided in two to provide a lunch room and a PE room. This one however has spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean courtesy of its wall of floor to ceiling windows. There are plans to put outdoor tables on the long balcony so students can sit out there and breathe in the salt air as they eat their lunch.
• Other Rooms: As with most schools, there is a dedicated art room, music room, library and computer rooms. Each one is state-of-the-art, light, bright and airy and just waiting for children to embark on a lifetime of learning. But it’s the science and math lab that is particularly impressive, and highlights the school’s status as a STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) model school. “It’s all about tinkering,” King said. “Using technology not just for technologies sake but to make things with it.”
As we toured all the high tech, impressive features incorporated into the school, King stopped in one room and proudly pointed out the telephone.
“Every classroom in the school has a phone,” she said excitedly.
“All these things we’ve never had before. I think people don’t realize the digs we’ve been living in these past four years. We finally have a dishwasher. We’ve never had a dishwasher before, not even in the old school.”
While there have been many, many challenges bringing this new school building to life, the one King would like people to focus on now, and truly understand is that this isn’t just about a new building.
“Our whole curriculum has changed. Coastal Environment education incorporates nature into learning,” King said. “It’s our focus, it helps us capture the children’s attention, to make connections on both a global scale and a personal one.”
The school is entering its third year as a science/math/Coastal Environment partial magnet school, and is partnering with the DNR, the South Carolina Aquarium and Kingfisher Environment to integrate math and science through out the curriculum. Children will take special science based field trips, listen to guest speakers and most importantly have lots of hand-on learning facilitated by the wet lab and science and math lab.
“Getting people to think about education differently is much harder than you think,” King said. “It’s almost like religion, you have all these set ideas about how it should be.”
If anything will help people understand how SIES is transforming, it will be this new school. Parents and students will have the opportunity to tour it on the first day, Monday, Aug. 18, and the community is invited to a walkthrough, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27. In the meantime, King and her team are working hard to make sure everything is ready on that first day of school. And while there are inevitably still a few loose ends to tie up, and a few elements that won’t be in place immediately, the school is somewhat miraculously ready to go.
“Our goal is to have a positive, safe and organized first day, and we are right on track,” King said.
The school is in a word amazing, and all it really needs now, to make it truly incredible, are some bright young minds to teach.