New school delivers arts and sciences in a historic setting
School bells are ringing once again at the 106-year-old Winyah Auditorium building in Georgetown. Once the home of Winyah Public School, built in 1908, the building hadn’t seen students roaming the halls in more than three decades. All of that changed when a new college preparatory school, grades 6–12, opened in August 2013. The school shares the large facility with doctor’s groups who fill one end, while the beautifully renovated Winyah Auditorium serves as the building’s architecturally significant and stunning centerpiece.
The administrators and faculty, who had come from another area school, saw a need to open a school within the Georgetown city limits for students of all ethnic and financial backgrounds. This private tuition-based school is recognized by the SCISA (South Carolina Independent School Association) and offers financial assistance.
Sun beams in through the century-old windows, shining down on desks and blackboards in the same rooms where thousands of students from four previous generations learned about their world. The last classes were held there in 1982, just before the school closed. In 2014, the building has changed little, except for the painstaking renovations that stuck to mandatory historic standards. While the same lessons may be taught, the number of students learning them has room to grow, but not too much.
If low teacher to student ratios are important, this school offers something quite unique. The school, as of our printing deadline, has just 22 students, with four full-time PhD faculty members and four part-time.
“Our student to teacher ratio is quite low,” said Dr. Gary Gates, Head of School. “We’d like it to not be quite so low,” he laughed, “but we’ve projected that a total enrollment of around  students would be ideal. We have a fantastic student/teacher ratio, and given the education level of the teachers, it’s even more significant. Our four full-time teachers are PhDs and have very specialized training and have a lot of prior academic experience.” That includes Gates, himself. He had been Head of School for middle and high school at Lowcountry Prep for the previous seven years. Prior to that, Gates studied and taught around the world, receiving his undergrad at the University of South Carolina and his PhD from Rutgers University. He taught for eight years at Brown University and has coached soccer locally, being named SCISA Coach of the Year 2005–2006.
Dr. Wade Razzi teaches History and English at The Georgetown School. He obtained his undergrad from Rutgers University and completed his doctorate at Oxford University in England. He relayed a recent comment from a student’s parent. “My kids are basically being privately tutored by PhDs,” said the parent. “What’s not to love?”
“The quality of the faculty and the dedication is [unusual] for a small town,” said Razzi.
Gates says he’s seen an education “drain” to surrounding communities coupled with a stagnant and sometimes even declining population within the City of Georgetown. “[We] live in downtown Georgetown, about six blocks from the school,” said Gates, whose wife, Dr. Laura Gates, is a native to Georgetown and also teaches at the school. “Some families with school-aged children are choosing not to relocate here, and families from this area are moving to the beach, where the perception is that the school system is better—Waccamaw, Socastee, Mt. Pleasant.”
Private schools, in general, face other stigmas that Gates and staff are trying hard to surmount.
“Some parents are leery of private schools,” said Gates. “They think they’re elitist, and we’re trying to overcome that misperception. The expense and tuition always comes up as well, but we have a good deal of excellent financial aid in place. The tuition is $7,500 annually. The majority of the student body was able to take advantage of some form of financial aid. Some pay next to nothing, and the school is almost free to them.”
How does the curriculum and philosophy differ from other schools? Gates and faculty think the small school setting is ideal and offers creative alternatives for the students not readily available elsewhere.
“We devised a curriculum that’s tailor-made for a small school,” continued Gates. “And we run our school differently than most. We have an unusual schedule. We’ve dedicated Wednesdays to art, theater and labs, so every Wednesday the entire school becomes the Drama and Art Department.”
One particular Wednesday in October, the entire student body participated in a real-time lesson in civics and journalism, watching and reporting as history unfolded around them.
“We have speakers that come in and talk to the kids on Wednesdays mornings,” recalled Gates, “and the particular Wednesday of the Front Street Fire, we had Jason Lesley scheduled to be here. He’s a reporter for the Coastal Observer and former editor of The Georgetown Times. He’d been at the fire since around 5 a.m.; he came into the school at 8:30. He told the students what was happening on Front Street, but then he organized the kids into a newspaper and sent them out to interview people [at the scene], as it was still happening. It was an amazing learning experience for the kids. He put them on a deadline and then published their reports in a blog.”
Marine science field trips to nearby ecosystems, trips to Hobcaw Barony and excursions to historic landmarks are all a regular part of academic life for the students as they discover the rich history of South Carolina and of Georgetown specifically. While these trips may enrich the education experience, do students miss out on some aspects of attending a bigger school?
The students participate in athletics using nearby facilities, participating with and against other schools in competition.
“The majority of our kids [as of November 2013] are in the 9th and 10th grade, and then we have a few 6th, 7th and 8th graders, and a few 11th graders and seniors,” said Gates, who hopes to see continued diversity as the school grows. The school had around a 25 percent minority enrollment in its first four months of operation.
“My wife is from Georgetown and she went to school here,” said Gates. “She is now one of the teachers here—and this is kind of bizarre—her Ancient Civ teacher dropped by the school this morning. He hadn’t seen my wife since 1979. He wanted to look around and see his former classroom, too.”
“I grew up near Philadelphia,” said Razzi, “and I moved here seven years ago. I’ve been a teacher for 13 years and love South Carolina’s history—it has amazing Colonial and Revolutionary War history. Georgetown’s [Antebellum] history is really amazing, and I love teaching it. The whole area is steeped in history. I would love to see this [historic] building filled with students again.”
For more information on The Georgetown School of Arts and Sciences, go to www.thegeorgetownschool.org. A benefit oyster roast for the school will be held on Sunday, February 9, from 2-5 p.m. at the South Carolina Maritime Museum in Georgetown.