School is in Session

Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

New area schools offer energy-positive buildings, cutting-edge technology and the opportunity for innovative learning

Don’t be alarmed when you see clusters of kids outside the classroom at the new Socastee Elementary School, seemingly lounging on comfy chairs, iPads in hand.

They haven’t been kicked out of class for misbehaving, banished to a dull, cinder block hallway for disrupting other students’ learning. No, these students are learning at their own pace in a living room like setting that’s still just a glance away from their teacher, who is on the other side of a glass wall instructing the rest of the students in the classroom.

“My favorite part [of our new school] is the collaboration spaces. It’s just a new type of learning,” said Krista Finklea, the principal at Socastee Elementary School. “Every student learns differently and they have times they need to work independently.”

Welcome to the new age of learning, underway and on display in three of the five new schools opening this school year in Horry County. The schools, at a price tag of $240.35 million, are not only designed to create the best environment to learn, but to help the Earthly environment, boasting features such as solar panels and cutting-edge construction techniques that should help each building produce more energy than it uses.

Socastee Elementary School, St. James Intermediate and Ten Oaks Middle School debuted at the start of the school year. At press time, Myrtle Beach Middle School was scheduled to open in mid-November, while Socastee Middle School was expected to open in mid-January.

Just months after three of the schools debuted, the collaboration spaces outside of the glass-walled classrooms are already a hit with principals and teachers, who rave about the freedom it gives for students to learn in different ways. The collaboration spaces—some like living rooms, others with tables, chairs and stools that can be arranged any way the students like—are intended for a variety of uses: a place for gifted students to learn at their own pace, for a group to work on a video project, for a student who needs extra help in, say, math to get special attention.

“It was just humming,” Elissa Blosser, assistant principal at St. James Intermediate, said while standing on the second floor overlooking several collaboration spaces. “You could hear them working, hear them learning. It’s all learning. It’s a good hum.”

This type of collaboration was basically impossible to achieve in a traditional school, where usually a thick wood door with a small square window leads to a long narrow hallway. In the new schools, as you walk the wide, carpeted hallways, you can see everything happening in the classrooms—with glass replacing the walls so you can see in. And the teachers, who also can see out from the classroom, can keep a watchful eye on the students working in nearby collaboration nooks.

The openness of being able to watch what happens inside a classroom had some concerned before the start of the school year; they didn’t want a classroom to end up being like an attraction in a zoo with folks stopping and gawking, disrupting the students inside the classroom.

“We thought it would be distracting,” Blosser said. “The first day of school they were fine. They loved it.”

Some students say the new building has energized them and the teachers and created a better learning environment.

“I pay so much attention now,” said Ashle Calderiso, a sixth-grader at St. James Intermediate. “I’m more focused on learning now.”

Stroll the gray-carpeted hallway at Socastee Elementary and through the glass walls you’ll spot students doing everything from being instructed on how to type on their keyboards to working in a science lab to sitting cross-legged on the floor learning music by repeating a chorus after the teacher. The new schools have an open-air feel, from the collaboration spaces to a wall-less library that greets you as you walk in. The second floor overlooks the open library and some collaboration spaces.

On a recent morning at St. James Intermediate, students had taken over a collaboration space: a line of students with their backs to the classroom focused on their Chromebooks while another cluster of students spread out on a couch and another pair perched in chairs at a high table.

“This is what we like to see,” Blosser said, “that they come up and make the space their own.”

On the first floor, a group of students in a collaboration space worked on a science project, with fifth-grader Yu Ni using his Chromebook to film his classmate for the project video.

“I like how they give us these spaces,” he said.

The cafeteria is equipped with a large TV for announcements and features a stage for performances. At St. James Intermediate, students walking the second floor hallway can look through the glass wall down on the gym, the floor boasting the school’s mascot—the Sharks.

Despite all the newness, there are some things about a school that just don’t change. On a recent visit, students were dressed in their best—bows in the little girls’ hair—for picture day, and a book fair in the library was attracting eager readers. Playful screams emanated from the playground outside.

In these energy-positive schools, the building is supposed to be working just as hard as the students.

With solar panels, LED lighting and other features, the schools are designed to produce more energy than they use, which is intended to save Horry County Schools roughly $120,000 to $160,000 a year per school on power bills.

The Horry County School Board said it wanted high performance, energy-positive schools in 2015 when it awarded the $220.6 million school building contract to Firstfloor Energy Positive, a Raleigh-based company specializing in the cutting edge energy-positive design-build model. The total cost, with contingencies and other allowances, will hit about $240.35 million.

All five new schools were originally set to open in time for the start of the 2017–18 school year, but two were delayed because of issues before construction started. Myrtle Beach Middle School was delayed because it took more time than expected to relocate tenants from the Myrtle Beach Family Learning Center, which had to be demolished to make way for the new school. Socastee Middle School hit snags finding a site, with officials analyzing several properties before having to take time to negotiate to buy one.

The energy-positive building concept is still relatively new in the United States, and Horry County Schools is among the first in the country to embrace it.

“It’s very cutting edge,” said Robbie Ferris, CEO of Firstfloor Energy Positive. “Horry County Schools is really at the front of this.”

Firstfloor designs the building with special energy-saving techniques, then will monitor it to ensure it operates the most efficiently. Some of the energy features at the new schools are common ones: solar panels, LED lighting, Energy Star appliances.

“It truly is covered with solar panels up there, which is amazing,” Blosser said.

The buildings are also more compact, with a rectangular design instead of wings of classrooms to make it more efficient. And teachers are already raving about all the natural light coming into the schools.

“The natural light is amazing,” Blosser said.

Other features are more advanced: a sophisticated air cleaning system and a thermally active building system (TABS), a relatively new technique in the United States using pipes around concrete in the buildings’ walls to improve efficiency of heating and cooling.

“They all really work well together,” Ferris said of the different energy-saving aspects of the new school buildings.

A few months into the school year, principals and students in the new schools give them an “A.” But the final grade won’t come until the schools have operated for a year, when officials will be able to determine if they functioned as intended and produced more energy than they consumed and are truly energy-positive.

A consultant will work with Horry County Schools for three years to monitor the energy use and production to make sure the building is operating as efficiently as possible.

Students are taking ownership of the energy-positive goal, too. At Socastee Elementary School, an Energy Wise Club will oversee the building’s energy use. The 18-member group of students will collect the data, calculate the use and see if the building is using too much energy or banking it. The group, made up of students who were nominated and selected to serve, will develop plans to conserve energy when needed, such as unplugging iPads during in-demand times or turning off lights in classrooms that aren’t in use. Each of the new schools will have an Energy Wise Club.

“That is a huge opportunity for those kids,” said Katelyn Tobrocke, a fourth-grade teacher at Socastee Elementary and the Energy Wise coordinator. “They have control over all of it. It’s awesome that the kids are running all of it.”

Ferris credits Horry County Schools with already having the technology integrated into the curriculum to allow students to get involved and monitor the energy use in the new schools. The school district requires that students have a digital learning device such as an iPad or Chromebook.

“It moves from being a place you learn in to a place you learn from,” Ferris said.

The new school design allows students to learn the skills they will need to be successful adults by embracing the technology that’s so important, but also by helping to form social skills in the collaboration spaces.

“This building really lends itself to teach kids how to do that,” Finklea said.