David Lauderdale

Back to the future at 100-year-old neighborhood school

On paper, Port Royal Elementary School doesn't look good.

It's too small. It's too old. It's not on a gargantuan piece of property in the suburbs.

But on Saturday afternoon, the school will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

That's a lot of reading, writing and arithmetic -- from McGuffey Readers to Dick and Jane to laptops.

It has survived everything from the Great Depression to Hurricane Gracie, and repeated threats of being shuttered by the bean counters.

Remarkably, it still stands as a daily reminder of the past on the main avenue of a small town that traces its history to 1562.

The past will get due tribute Saturday. The story of how Pat Conroy's Daufuskie Island students integrated the school during a weeklong visit to Port Royal will be told by former administrator Bernie Schein. Older "graduates" will be asked to record their memories in an oral history.

"It's a little school that keeps on going," said Anna Ellerbe, president of the Port Royal Historical Foundation.

It should be seen as a model for the future.

Port Royal residents see the school as its heartbeat. Most of its eight-acre tract is known as Live Oak Park, meaning the school grounds are a gathering place for many events. "The town and the school are one entity," said principal Jo Shirley. "It's a dream."

The school has only 260 students, so everybody on the staff knows every student and their families. About 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. It's 56 percent Caucasian, 33 percent African-American and 11 percent Hispanic. About 15 percent are from military families, with a handful of students with both parents deployed.

From that diversity and transience comes this: The school has achieved the stringent "adequate yearly progress" demanded by federal law three years running. It has won the state's highest awards for academic achievement and for closing the gap for low achievers.

Fewer than 25 of its students ride the bus to school. Most of them walk or ride a bike. At school, they can walk to see the police chief or postmaster, or sing "Happy Birthday" to the elderly who live in a retirement home next door.

Somewhere during the long voyage of the Port Royal Elementary School Mariners, America veered away from small neighborhood schools.

And we have the test scores to prove it.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Port Royal Elementary School website