Beaufort News

Beaufort Elementary principal urges city to reconsider Riverview location proposal

Riverview Charter School students wait for their ride at the front of the school Tuesday afternoon.
Riverview Charter School students wait for their ride at the front of the school Tuesday afternoon. Jonathan Dyer, The Beaufort Gazette

The principal of Beaufort Elementary School implored Beaufort city officials Tuesday to work with those who already call the school home to reach neighborhood redevelopment goals rather than recommend the building become a permanent location for Riverview Charter School.

The Beaufort Elementary School facility emerged as the clear favorite among City Council members last week as a permanent location for Riverview.

Council was scheduled to continue discussion about a pending resolution endorsing that position with Riverview board members Tuesday, but the conversation quickly shifted to the existing Beaufort Elementary School.

Jennifer Morillo, principal of Beaufort Elementary, asked council members why they hadn't visited the school recently or considered ways it could help it grow and improve.

"I want you to come look at us and give us a plan," Morillo said. "You want a community school? I've got you one."

Both Morillo and Riverview representatives emphasized that the two schools aren't in competition. Each wants the best for its students and families.

At its marrow, council's resolution supports the "concept" of a school like Riverview -- an eight-year program that could serve as an incubator for nearby neighborhoods, City Councilman Mike Sutton said.

"My dream would be that all the children who live downtown would go to that school," Sutton said. "That's what it should be, a neighborhood school."

But Morillo questioned how a charter school -- a school of choice that can enroll students from all corners of Beaufort County -- would help achieve that goal and other city redevelopment aims.

About 40 percent of the Northwest Quadrant is vacant, Sutton said.

Officials hope a thriving school could help breathe some life back into the surrounding neighborhoods.

The city's draft resolution includes language that says Riverview, the Beaufort County School District and the federal Office for Civil Rights -- which has the final say on where Riverview can locate -- "might facilitate the ability for currently-zoned Beaufort Elementary School students to be given enrollment priority in Riverview Charter School, thereby helping Riverview meet prescribed enrollment demographic targets and extend the school's efforts for a racially and socio-economic diverse population."

But Denise Jones, the mother of a student at Beaufort Elementary, questioned how officials would ensure all neighborhood children who wanted to attend Riverview could get a spot, given enrollment demand and restrictions. Riverview Charter School currently has 350 applications for fewer than 80 empty seats for the 2011-2012 school year.

"I'm just shocked," Jones said after the meeting.

Riverview officials say the Beaufort Elementary proposal was made by the city.

Riverview hasn't yet formally reviewed the site as a possibility, but is not counting it out at this point.

"We're willing to listen to anybody with a proposal that benefits all parties," said Robert White, chairman of Riverview's board of directors.

Beaufort Elementary houses about 600 students in a building that holds the main elementary school program, a program for students with special needs and the Advanced Math, Engineering and Science Academy, a magnet program for gifted students.

All attendees are considered Beaufort Elementary students, Morillo said.

Next school year, the school plans to offer Montessori instruction to students throughout the county.

Morillo projects enrollment will grow to 650 or 700 this fall, making the school about three-quarters full. It has a capacity of about 900.

Riverview is temporarily located on Burroughs Avenue in a building it leases from the school district. This fall, it plans to also lease from Beaufort County land beside the building that will house six portable classrooms to alleviate anticipated overcrowding.

Riverview now serves 304 students but is seeking a permanent facility large enough to hold the 684 students in kindergarten through eighth grade it expects to eventually enroll. The school's charter allows it to expand annually during the next several years.

The county Board of Education voted last year to recommend downtown Beaufort as the permanent site for Riverview after reviewing three possible locations. City Council members endorsed the decision and helped the school identify and research potential sites.

Whether Beaufort Elementary will remain council's preferred site could be up for debate, Sutton said, adding that council will probably discuss it further next week when it considers the resolution.