Butler Academy, a year-round charter school, will open in Hartsville in July 2020. House speaker Jay Lucas and other officials were invited to tour the construction site of the new school on Wednesday (Jan. 8).

“This school belongs to the community,” said Jerome Reyes, founder and school president. “We want to become a cornerstone of the community.”

Butler Academy is at 710 S. Fifth St. in the former Food Lion shopping center. The entire shopping center has been acquired for school use but only a portion of the space will be open in the beginning.

“Construction is on schedule,” Reyes said.

Phase I of the school includes classrooms for grades K-8, which is approximately 32,000 square feet. While all the rooms will be finished, only K-4 will be used this year.

Phase 2 (9 — 12) is unfinished space on the right side of the property that housed other businesses than Food Lion. This space will be sealed off. It will add an additional 20,000 square feet and construction will begin on the phase in about three years, Reyes said. He said all of the exterior will be finished during the first phase.

The project is owned by the investment group West & Joyce LLC, Reyes said.

“Their belief in our school’s mission and vision has made the creation of our campus possible,” he said. “Our state-approved budget only accounts for monthly lease payments for our usage of the site. Like many successful projects in Hartsville, this is a public-partner venture that the community has pulled together to make happen, financially and otherwise. We are thankful for partners such as West & Joyce, The Byerly Foundation, Sonoco Foundation, and the Coker family foundations. Their collective financial support has created a well-paved ramp for our success.”

FW Architects and Walker Engineering and Construction are in charge of the work.

Reyes said by May Phase I will be complete enough to start moving in furniture.

Reyes said he has worked closely with the architect and the school has some different features.

“It is the result of my visiting a lot of schools all over the country,” he said.

Starting on the grounds, Reyes pointed out where the school playground will be located.

“Our playground will be akin to what you see at Byerly Park (in Hartsville),” he said.

He said the intention is for the playground equipment to be shared with the community when school is not in session.

The main entrance to the school is on Fifth Street but during the morning hours as students are coming to school it will be closed. Traffic will be routed through its Poole Street entrance. He said this was suggested and approved by the S.C. Department of Transportation.

Reyes pointed out that kindergarten classrooms are large so that they will accommodate lots of work stations.

He said classrooms are designed to be “backward facing” so that when a visitor enters the room it won’t disrupt what is going on.

“Our scholars will be trained in how to ignore people coming in,” he said.

Ryes said the first day of school will be July 22. The faculty will start on July 7. He said about 100 of the 200 available spaces have already been filled for the coming year.

When the school opens in July it will house grades 5K through fourth grade.

Reyes said a grade will be added every year until the school is kindergarten through 12th grade. There will be two classes for each grade with a 20-student maximum in each classroom. Grades 5K and first grade will have two teachers per classroom, he said.

He said there will be a cap of 200 students in 2020. And by 2028, the cap will be 520 students for grades 5K through 12.

“We are in the hiring process now (for teachers),” he said.

As a year-round school, the planned day begins at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast; teachers “will huddle” from 7:15 to 7:30 a.m., and everyone is expected to be in the classroom by 8 a.m. The school day ends at 4 p.m., but there will be an extended-day program in the afternoon to 6 p.m. and programs during the off weeks.

Reyes said the school is already developing partnerships with Coker University, the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, Edventure, an art studio and others to provide programs for the extended-day program in things like robotics, yoga, computer programing and arts, depending on the partnership.

As for where the students will come from, Reyes said there is no attendance zone. The stipulation is that they must be from South Carolina. He said about 90 percent of those who have signed up are from Darlington County.

“If you can get them here, we will educate them,” he said.

Reyes said the school is not affiliated with Darlington County. As a charter school, he said, it must accept all students who apply if there is room. He said the school will most likely be looking at a waiting list.

He said when grades are added where students are eligible to participate in sports and other activities they will be able to participate at the schools they are typically zoned for.

“We are a free public school,” he said.

Butler Academy will be governed by a board of directors. They include Dr. Marian Bunnell, Aimee Cox-King, Harris DeLoach, Zachary Dillard, Dr. Kathryn Flaherty, Thomas Goodson, Dr. Alvin Heatley, Adrienne Rose, Jon Shannon and Reyes, school president, ex-officio.

Heatley, retired educator and member of the Butler Heritage Foundation, participated in the tour.

“It means everything to the community,” he said. “It is another option for education.”

He said education is about all children having access to a quality education so they can be productive citizens. He said this school will give them another place to receive that education.

“I am excited,” he said. “This is a project that could only happen in a city like Hartsville.”

Ryes said he witnessed a level of inequity in education that was “heartbreaking” to him. His mission is to “shift mindsets,” bringing freedom of choice to Darlington County.

“I’ll also add that, depending on what neighborhood you live in, families who can’t afford private alternatives can be legally obligated to choose between homeschooling or sending their children to a failing school,” Reyes said. “Creating a free, public charter school provides a fresh solution so that receiving a high-quality education is no longer dependent on your household income or where you live in the city. We’re a doorway to new, transformational learning opportunities that are designed to prepare students to succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.”

Reyes has undergraduate degrees in math and engineering, as well as a master’s and Ph.D. in industrial engineering. He taught at the university level for seven years. He said he left a tenured position to become the facilitator of PULSE, a new outreach program at the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics.

“Eight years later, here I am: The next chapter for me, and for education in Darlington County,” he said. “It’s going to be amazing. I can’t wait to get started.”

“I think it is exciting not only for Hartsville but for Darlington County and South Carolina,” Lucas said. “There is never one way to educate a child. There are always alternative ways.”

He said he will be looking forward to seeing the results.

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