The principal and two staff members at Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts Elementary in early October flew on a private jet to Atlanta, where they toured a creative learning environment recognized globally for its academic excellence.

During a half-day visit to the Ron Clark Academy (RCA), fourth-year principal Janice Malone and two instructional coaches walked bedazzled through an unconventional school. Created in a converted warehouse it was “like no other” campus they’d seen, where art and mythical characters stimulate a child’s imagination and thirst for learning.

Taxpayers did not pay for the Atlanta trip. It was arranged by the school’s new neighbor. Sanders-Clyde is in an emerging partnership with the developers of Morrison Yard, a mammoth five-story complex rising directly across Morrison Drive from the campus.

Charleston-based Origin Development Partners (ODP) is Morrison Yard’s master developer. In an email, ODP spokesman Gary Shahid, said, “We are working with Ms. Malone on adopting similar ideas and teaching methods developed at RCA. We firmly believe the cycle of poverty can be broken by lifting up all children through education. RCA has proven all children no matter the circumstances can learn and be educated by stimulating and inspiring programs with teachers who are engaging and committed.” 

Morrison Yard is one of six construction projects at the southern end of a one-mile stretch of Morrison Drive near the school and Cooper River Court and the adjacent Meeting Street Manor, federally subsidized housing projects owned by the Charleston Housing Authority (CHA).

Malone is encouraged the developers “realize and respect the (community’s) history, people and culture and are willing to partner with the neighborhood instead of coming from a point of taking over.”

In the email Shahid said, “From the beginning, OPD has involved the Eastside community to understand their concerns and incorporate their ideas. We believe in building community beyond our project boundaries and have incorporated a number of offsite improvements to the Eastside in an effort to reknit the urban fabric within the community. This is an ongoing and evolving process. We are very excited about our partnership with the Eastside community.”

Malone has high hopes the developers will help her school hire an interior designer to create an alluring entrance like the one at the Ron Clark Academy. She’s also seeking professional development for teachers and help to form a Sanders-Clyde Foundation “to give us more flexibility with raising money,” she said.

The Atlanta experience has Malone exploring how she can further couple the arts and academics. “It is not how smart the (students) are, but how are they smart,” she said. “We know they are smart and some of those multiple intelligences may be in dance, music and visual arts.”

In early December, Malone said the developers also treated the teachers to a Christmas party in the Cedar Room venue at the Cigar Factory, providing most of the money to rent the space.

In an email, Shahid said ODP purchased eight acres comprised of three separate parcels and planned the parcels for Morrison Yard, a mixed-use development. The plan includes apartments, offices and a hotel. ODP has formed joint ventures on different parcels within Morrison Yard with other developers. Phase I is four acres in Morrison Yard that was sold to Woodfield Development or Arlington, Virginia.

This apartment project includes 379 units, 10% of which will be in the City of Charleston’s affordable housing program. In addition, the first-floor retail shops will cover 30,000 square feet.

Morrison Yard’s Phase II is a joint venture for a 153,000-square-foot office building with retail and rooftop event space. The office project includes parking for 395 cars. This is a joint venture with ODP, The Keith Corporation and Mixson Properties. Phases I and II are expected to be completed this summer. Additional work in Phase III and IV will be announced before April.

Shortly after construction began two years ago, the school’s staff had to compete for on-street parking spaces with contractor employees. “Numerous contractors were taking up the parking spaces, so my teachers had to walk in the cold, rain or dark,” Malone recalled. She asked the City of Charleston for help with no results.

The nonprofit Charleston Promise Neighborhood, which provides educational programs for children, connected Malone with the developer, and a representative met with her. She asked if the contactors would “give us the perimeter of the school so my young female teachers would not have to walk in the dark or inclement weather. He made that happen. He bought the entire staff lunch, realizing the inconvenience (the construction project) was causing here,” Malone said, seated behind the desk in her office at the school.

That interaction led to Malone’s connection with Shahid. “He came and wanted to do things long-term (and) larger-scale.” Following that conversation Shahid arranged the Atlanta trip.

Lakisha Croskey lives in the housing project near the school and her children attended Sanders Clyde. The nearby construction worries her. She’s skeptical of the development. “Once that building comes up, they are going to try to do away with the school,” she said.

Asked to explain her comment, Croskey paused then said: “Not saying (this) to be prejudice, but mostly everything (in Charleston) is building up for white people. Things are being built for the college kids. To get a loft or apartment, it is $1,500 or $2,000. I can’t afford that.”

CHA has plans to renovate its housing units and broaden the rules for tenants, said Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell. 

“All of public housing is not going to be like the public housing we know today. Public housing is not going to be based solely on income. The CHA plans to renovate public housing units and issue Section 8 vouchers to tenants to move to other locations.”

The city does not receive federal funds for renovation, the councilman said. 

“So the city will have to get people coming in who can pay to help keep the housing authority operating. Some of them will be based on income and other units will be based on market rate or affordable housing rate so they can have the money.”

A few white and Latino children are among the 360 mostly Black students at Sanders Clyde. Malone is concerned if the nearby public housing projects are lost or reduced in size and new construction brings in families without children, then the school’s enrollment could decline in the next decade. If new construction, however, adds diversity to the area and the school, she said, it would be a welcomed trend.

“Building after building; hotels after hotel is changing the landscape,” she said. “I think there should be balance in everything. Charleston is a historic city. You want to keep some of that flavor.”

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