New high school campus takes shape
Nearly one hundred years ago, in 1920, a then eight-year-old Philip Simmons left his Daniel Island home, where he’d grown up with his grandparents, to move to downtown Charleston. The reasoning was simple enough: the family wanted the best for young Simmons, and living downtown with his mother allowed him to go to a public high school, something not possible then or now on the Cainhoy Peninsula.
But that’s all set to change in a matter of months. In August of 2017, the Berkeley County School District will officially cut the ribbon on a brand new high school named in honor of the late Master Blacksmith, a revered Charleston icon. Construction of the new, $69 million Philip Simmons High School and campus is on track for completion this summer. The creation of a trio of new Philip Simmons schools represents a new chapter for the residents of Daniel Island and the Cainhoy Peninsula, who haven’t seen formalized education in the area at the high school level since the closure of Cainhoy High School in 1996. What began with the creation of the Philip Simmons Elementary and Middle Schools, which opened to students from Cainhoy, Daniel Island, and Huger last August, will be brought to completion this summer when the last of the more than 750,000 bricks comprising the new high school are laid.
The elementary/middle and high school campuses will be located less than a mile from one another, and the schools will share everything from their curriculum to their school mascot, the Iron Horses. The schools are so intertwined in fact, that the man hired last June to serve as principal of PSHS, Dr. James Spencer, currently works from an office on the elementary and middle school campus.
And for Dr. Spencer, who, along with the initial members of his leadership team, is known to on occasion drive over to the job site for extemporaneous meetings with construction firm Thompson Turner Construction, he wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, Spencer was hired a year-and-a-half ahead of the 2017 school year for a reason: along with the school itself, Spencer and his small team of three are building the school’s curriculum from the ground up.
“If you go into an existing school right now, everything you see, every pencil, every piece of paper, every process being undertaken by a human being, anything you can put your eyes on, we’ve got seven months to get that done here,” said Dr. Spencer, during a recent tour of the campus. “And it’s all being planned simultaneously. You can’t isolate things like the decision-making over the furniture and the curriculum, it all has to be part of the culture, it has to be part of the facility, it has to be part of the vision.”
The Philip Simmons High School is being constructed, like it’s elementary and middle school companions, around a STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). The curriculum will be technology-rich, and will include some class offerings unique to STEAM programs. Examples include PSHS’s four-year pre-engineering program, a four-year program for cyber security, and the school’s innovative “mechatronics” program (the second such offering in Berkeley County Schools) that incorporates computers, robotics, and manufacturing.
As for the student body, Spencer expects between 300 and 400 ninth and tenth-graders will begin at the school this fall. The school is being built for an eventual 1,500 students, with capacity for another 400 to be added later in the form of a second school building. Additional ninth-grade classes will be added in the subsequent two years with class offerings growing as the first class of 2020 matriculates through the school. The school will have eleventh-grade classes beginning in 2018 and a full four-year curriculum, including twelfth-grade, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.
“You will have three different levels of students,” said Spencer. “You will have some that will be job ready that can go to Boeing immediately and do an entry-level job. You’ll have some that are going to be ready for a two-year program and you obviously will have some that can leave this program and go right into a four year college program. So we’re really excited to be able to offer all three options to our students.”
The project to construct the new PSHS goes far beyond the simple creation of a campus and the coordination of a curriculum, according to Spencer, a 27-year veteran educator who will lead his third school as principal at PSHS. A concurrent mission, he explained, is the concept of creating a school culture.
“What’s unique with modern school construction in our district is having the capacity for everybody to be on board from the beginning and move forward together,” said Spencer. “So many people play a strong part in creating this school. We only have four employees so far, but it’s four people working really hard for these kids. They are working hard for these kids already, and we’re already a team.”
The newest member of that team is Assistant Principal and Athletics Director Brion Packett, who just last month joined a Philip Simmons High leadership team that includes head secretary Cathy Chiasson and Guidance Director Virginia Reijners. Though he was only hired earlier this month, Packett is already making key decisions in the athletics department and forging new partnerships with area businesses, a secondary function he was hired to perform. Reijners has been instrumental in planning the curriculum and the guidance processes the school will implement. Spencer describes Chiasson as “the glue that holds it all together.”
When it comes to the creation of the new PSHS campus specifically, Spencer and his group turn to a larger team working on scene and behind the scenes at the facility, a team that includes the BCSD Capital Projects team, the group from Thompson Turner Construction, and even the team of architects from local firm McMillan Pazdan and Smith.
“It’s a more cohesive process when everyone’s on board sooner,” continued Spencer. “And being on board early helps because there are changes we’ve made along the way to make sure the building reflects the curriculum we’ve designed.”
“This is an absolutely wonderful relationship,” he added, of his work with building firm Thompson Turner Construction, with whom he’s worked with previously at Marrington Middle School of the Arts. “They act as though they are building a school building for their own children. That’s how they work. That’s how they communicate with me.”
And of the architects behind the project, Spencer was equally effusive in his praise of the team environment. “They bend over backward,” he said. “They listen to us, they take our calls, and they meet with us even when they aren’t required to.”
As for the design of the 215,000 square foot main school building, Spencer asserts that every aspect of the design of the facility was done with the student body and the STEAM curriculum in mind. One highlight is the wide, serpentine couch-laden cafeteria, which is affronted on one end by an expansive outdoor patio space and on the other by the student friendly “technology forest” seating area, where students will be able to have their lunch while staying plugged in and powered up.
“What we want is for it to feel like a small college campus where the kids are going to have a lot of liberties,” said Spencer.
Other design highlights include a 715-seat auditorium with beveled seating and a production room, wide education wings with their own serpentine couches for outside classroom student seating and the school’s full athletics complex, with features that include a fieldhouse, press boxes, fields, and even a well-located sports medicine classroom and clinic, a feature suggested by Spencer himself.
Perhaps the most unique feature will be the ironworking used for hand railings and located throughout the school. The design was inspired by the work of Philip Simmons. Not only that, but Simmons’ nephew Carlton Simmons will be introducing some of his own work for inclusion into the design.
The younger Simmons himself will be completing the iron work for a pair of exterior bike racks, the front signage, the front door pulls, and a series of medallions slated for placement just inside the entrance. For sure, Carlton’s uncle would be proud to see the educational progress being forged in his former community.