BACK TO SCHOOL

New high school near Lexington focuses on future

tflach@thestate.comAugust 19, 2013 

  • Returning this week

    Following are return dates for Midlands-area districts. For a look at new programs and faces at these districts, go to thestate.com/education.

    Monday: Kershaw County, Lexington 1, Lexington 3, Richland 1

    Tuesday: Lexington 4, Lexington-Richland 5

    Wednesday: Lexington 2, Richland 2

The 1,500 students who start classes Monday at the new River Bluff High School near Lexington will learn in ways much different from their parents.

Principal Luke Clamp describes the plan as a high school for the future.

As befits modern schools, instruction focuses on digital approaches.

But education at River Bluff will require hands-on involvement among students and teachers in conversation areas as well as in classrooms and lecture halls.

Those features are “an extension of the classroom for anytime, anywhere learning,” Clamp said.

There are no lockers, with material delivered online instead of through textbooks.

Windows abound for dramatic appearance and to lower lighting costs.

There’s an art gallery, music recording studio and video broadcast center as well as a coffee bar, cafeteria styled like a shopping mall food court and a store selling T-shirts, sweatshirts and other paraphernalia with the school’s alligator mascot.

Advanced classes abound, particularly in multimedia arts and environmental law.

The science laboratories are better than those at many colleges, biology teacher Lisa Rose said.

With enrollment expected to reach 2,500 in a few years, there’s a pair of gymnasiums so sports like basketball and volleyball can occur simultaneously as well as two theaters and an outdoor amphitheater.

Some of those features also are at the Midlands other newest high schools, the year-old Westwood near Blythewood and at Spring Hill near Chapin, which opens Tuesday.

But River Bluff – overlooking the lower Saluda River – is the model for what Lexington 1 officials say is preparing students for 21st century jobs and life.

Campus design

The curriculum and building design was developed with advice from community, education and business representatives locally and nationwide.

It is part of a network of more than 160 schools nationwide that stress interdisciplinary study requiring student engagement and character development, traits Clamp said will develop creativity, collaboration and search skills vital for careers.

That approach demands teachers and pupils be more interactive, something that may be uncomfortable for some initially, Rose said.

At nearly 524,000 square feet, River Bluff is one of the largest schools in South Carolina. It’s nearly as big as Westwood and Spring Hill combined.

Its setting on three levels on a wooded hillside leads Clamp to refer to it as a “campus.”

The school is one of the most expensive in South Carolina, carrying a price tag of up to $138.9 million in a package of building projects authorized by voters in 2008.

Its cost is likely to be less, although no one is ready yet to say how much, Lexington 1 spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill said.

Buying the site, grading it and building the school cost $111.5 million so far, officials said. The total cost of equipping it has not yet undetermined.

Its setting provided one money-saving measure.

Much of the brick used in the school is created from red clay on its 146-acre site on Corley Mill Road a mile north of the intersection of U.S. 378 and I-20.

While facilities should be a source of community pride, “what matters most is what happens inside” in educating students to excel academically today to enable them to become community leaders later, Westwood principal Ralph Schmidt said.

Too fancy?

Lexington 1’s choice of the site and the school’s appearance has run into steady complaints.

School officials settled on the site on the eastern edge of the district, saying it is set in what is becoming a high-growth area.

Some neighbors have complained incessantly since the site was chosen in 2009 that the facility is destroying one of Lexington County’s scenic corridor.

Development restrictions required Lexington 1 to save trees and plant more.

The school’s wooded setting will be open for neighbors to hike. In time, its library will be open for community use.

Features like exposed wooden beams, grilles around corridor ceiling lights, stone facade in hallways and decorative bridges across ravines are generating grumbles from some in the community that the school is a Taj Mahal.

In some circles, its nickname is “River Fluff.”

Some of the decor disturbs Norm Swalgren, whose grandchild is a student.

“You hope they would be more conscious of taxpayers,” said the 72-year-old operator of a marina on nearby Lake Murray. “It seems extravagant.”

Those choices cost little more than others and are conducive to a better environment for students, Clamp said.

But the biggest concern is traffic congestion expected where Corley Mill, U.S. 378 and I-20 come together.

State transportation officials, county leaders and Town Hall are scrambling to make improvements to lessen bottlenecks, but the changes won’t be fully in place until next spring. Tight finances delayed a start on the project, forcing an unsuccessful effort to obtain road frontage through donation instead of purchase.

Town police and county deputies are likely to be stationed in the area to direct traffic when students are headed to class Monday through Friday during morning rush hour.

U.S. 378 is a major route for commuters headed to work in downtown Columbia.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods are on edge, expecting students to come through in search of less-traveled short-cuts.

Despite those distractions, Clamp is concentrating on creation of a culture imparting civic values as well as a top-notch education.

Amid all the state-of-the art amenities, he wants to instill an old-fashioned sense of community among students and staff.

“We’ll call it home,” Clamp said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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