Schools ready to open new doors

Get to know the principals of the new Pritchardville Elementary and Bluffton Middle schools, and Whale Branch Early College High School

August 2, 2010 

The upcoming school year will bring to an end the chronic overcrowding in Bluffton and mark the realization of the long-awaited north-area high school.

Students in Beaufort County will step into new buildings and greet new principals when classes begin this month.

Just two years ago, about 2,000 students in Bluffton-area public schools learned in temporary classrooms.

No Bluffton students, in kindergarten through high school, will have to attend class in portable units this fall, thanks in part to the new Pritchardville Elementary and Bluffton Middle schools.

Both are opening this year, along with Whale Branch Early College High School in Seabrook.

Beaufort County schools superintendent Valerie Truesdale said the new high school will mean the end of long bus rides for students in the rural, northernmost part of the county. She also said the Pritchardville community typically hasn't had its own school.

"(Those schools) will bring education closer to the students they serve," Truesdale said.

She said all three buildings are ready and teachers are preparing to welcome their new classes Aug. 16.

"The goal is to open on Day 1 as if it were on Day 100," Truesdale said. "That way we won't miss a beat."

Here's a look at the principals who will be in charge of those new schools when Day 1 arrives in two weeks:


Pritchardville Elementary School

With professional experience in schools and the military, Charles Johnson said he is ready to take on his new role as principal of Pritchardville Elementary School.

"I think my background in the military has kept me with an even keel," Johnson said. "I take everything with a grain of salt. If I get praised or corrected, I know everything is for the better. ... It's all about growth."

Before taking the job at the new school, Johnson taught first grade at Edisto Primary School for a year and taught second and fifth grades at Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary School for seven years. He was the assistant principal at Robert Smalls Middle School from 2006 to 2009. Johnson also was in the Army for 4  1⁄2 years.

Assistant Principal Mary Beth Roulston has only worked with Johnson for a couple weeks so far, but she has known him for longer because they have previously done assistant principal training together.

"He's extremely positive," she said. "And not only is he positive in regards to kids, but he wants his school climate and culture to be positive, so he's looking at ways of rewarding teachers for the things that they do that are good."

Roulston said the principal also is trying to establish positive relationships with parents, inviting them to come in for tours of the school and asking them to join the school improvement council and Parent Teacher Organization.

"His overall vision in my mind is for everybody to be like a family," Roulston said. "His philosophy of academic excellence and positive attitudes go hand in hand. He truly is behind that because that's just how he is."


Bluffton Middle School

The motto at Bluffton Middle School is "The Tradition Begins." For Principal Dereck Rhoads, coming to lead the new school for sixth- and seventh-graders is starting a tradition for his family, as well.

Rhoads spent the past

12 years overseas at English-language schools in Brazil and Mexico. When they first left the states, Rhoads and his wife, Alisa, were both teachers looking to try something new.

"We were young, we had no kids, we thought, 'Let's give it a try.' We thought we'd be back in two years," he said. "When we got there, they said we'd get sand in our shoes."

As the saying goes, once you make it your home, the more difficult it is to leave.

Rhoads got a job at the American School of Brasilia, a private school catering to children of English-speaking residents of the Brazilian capital. He spent seven years there, the last four as a principal before moving onto American School Foundation of Monterrey, a similar school in Mexico. He spent five years as a principal before he and his wife started to think about returning to the United States. Their two children are elementary school-age, and the family decided it would be best to move closer to family.

Rhoads wasn't familiar with the Lowcountry before moving here, but found the climate and community appealing and the family could be closer to relatives in Atlanta. Plus, the idea of helping start a tradition was too good to pass up.

"There's a chance to be setting the climate, setting the vision," he said. "That's exciting."


Whale Branch Early College High School

After 30 years in education and administration, Priscilla Drake is starting over as the first principal at the new Whale Branch Early College High School -- a first of its kind school in Beaufort County.

"It's scary in an exciting sense," Drake said. "I know that the world is looking at us. We are actually trailblazing … a first for our county."

The school's "early college" is intended to encourage students to pursue post-secondary education. The curriculum allows students to earn credits toward an associate degree or certificate through the Technical College of the Lowcountry while still in high school.

"It is an exciting opportunity to be able to actually get a college education free of charge while in high school," Drake said. "It feels great, I think I'm going to enjoy my year, and years to come."

Drake previously taught business at Battery Creek High School and typing and science at Lady's Island Middle School. She has been assistant principal at Beaufort High School and was the principal of Lady's Island Middle and St. Helena Elementary schools.

Education is a family affair for the Drakes. She met her husband, Nathaniel, while at S.C. State University. They received their master's degrees in education together from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Her husband is assistant principal at Beaufort Middle School, and their son, Nathaniel Jr., is band

director at Ridgeland High School.

Drake is looking forward to launching a new generation of students into college and loves seeing the students' faces light up when making college plans.

"One kid said he wanted to be a rapper, but added 'Mrs. Drake, I already have a backup plan, I want to get into (Computer Assisted Design) because I want to own my own auto shop.' "

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