The old, abandoned West Hardeeville School in Jasper County had come on hard times.
Graffiti covered the walls, parts of the building had been set on fire and the trophy case was smashed, with broken trophies on the floor. There was even evidence that squatters had lived in the building, leaving behind clothes, candles and food. This once well-tended community resource had become an eyesore and a symbol of the academic hardships many children faced in this district.
These days, there is new life within those once graffiti-covered walls, thanks to a community coming together to address a problem. In a place where children once struggled to succeed, students from kindergarten to high school are now engaged in hands-on learning activities and are receiving innovative, individualized instruction that meets their needs.
The new Royal Live Oaks Academy of the Arts & Sciences charter school opened its doors in August 2012. With more than 90 percent of its population qualifying for free or reduced lunch, these are kids who were not generally expected to excel. In fact, many of them arrived at their new school’s doors about two or three years behind where they should have been academically. But within this positive learning environment that fosters academic pride, positive peer support and personal responsibility, these students are now thriving and growing toward their full potential.
This impressive transformation came about through local vision and community collaboration, spearheaded by the school’s cofounders, Karen and Les Wicks. Dr. Karen Wicks and her husband relocated to South Carolina with an eye toward retiring here from New Jersey. As they got to know the area, these educators with over 40 years’ experience began to reimagine what their retirement might look like. Seeing local schoolchildren struggling to succeed gave them the desire to put their experience to work on a community need.
With her Ph.D. from New York University, Karen Wicks has taught middle and high school, as well as on the college level. Before moving to South Carolina, she and her husband also founded an educational program in New Jersey that helped children learn by finding their strengths and weaknesses and developing their critical-thinking skills. Recognizing that Jasper County students could benefit from a similar individualized approach to learning, the Wickses began connecting with community groups and school officials to explore possible solutions.
In the school’s early planning stages, Jasper County families gathered together in places like the Coosawhatchie Community Center to talk with Dr. Wicks about not just raising test scores but giving their children opportunities to grow. With a mission to help every child taste success, these groups envisioned a school that wouldn’t charge tuition and would be open to all children in the county through a random lottery.
When they presented their proposal to the S.C. Charter School District, the school’s planners were able to demonstrate that the Royal Live Oaks Academy of the Arts & Sciences had the strong support of the community—one of the biggest hurdles to starting any new charter school.
And although it might have been simpler to start fresh with a brand-new building instead of rehabilitating the once-abandoned West Hardeeville School, the Wickses recognized the appeal of bringing an old building back to life. They recognized that the hope and the history of the building weren’t in the structure itself, but rather in the local people—many of them parents and grandparents of current students—who once walked through those school doors.
Wanting to celebrate every kind of learner, this school has not only enhanced the academic life of the county but has also demonstrated the power of community-based solutions to long-term challenges.
Royal Live Oaks Academy is just one example of friends and neighbors coming together to change their community for the better. As we continue to explore the theme of people making big differences through local connections, we’re eager to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and then meet back here each month for more stories about turning challenges into opportunities for growth and connection.
For more on finding or starting a public charter school in your community, contact the S.C. Charter School District at (803) 734‑8322; sccharter.org.
Are you part of a community initiative? Share your story with the readers of South Carolina Living. Write to:
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina
808 Knox Abbott Drive Cayce, SC 29033
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