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New Sumter charter lands historic home in former Liberty Street Elementary School

South Sumter school built in segregation will transform into Primary Academy Campus

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/1/20

Sumter County's first tuition-free public charter school now officially has a home.

Sumter STEAM Charter School founding board Chairman Greg Thompson and school Chief of Staff Trevor Ivey spoke Thursday on the acquisition of a historical school …

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New Sumter charter lands historic home in former Liberty Street Elementary School

South Sumter school built in segregation will transform into Primary Academy Campus

Posted

Sumter County's first tuition-free public charter school now officially has a home.

Sumter STEAM Charter School founding board Chairman Greg Thompson and school Chief of Staff Trevor Ivey spoke Thursday on the acquisition of a historical school property and next steps to engage the community on a name change to recognize the original school's legacy.

After working through the approval process of two state agencies on the acquisition in recent months and the generosity of an anonymous donor, Sumter STEAM Charter acquired the former Liberty Street Elementary School facility at 15 School St. in south Sumter on Wednesday.

Built in 1949, Liberty Street served Black children in Sumter under the auspices of the former Sumter School District 17 during the 1950s and '60s before integration, according to historical accounts. School Street is located just off West Liberty Street near downtown. Most recently, the school operated as the former St. Francis Xavier High School until 2017.

Ivey said the 23,000-square-foot campus - with 12 classrooms, office space, a couple bonus rooms and a cafeteria area - will serve as the Primary Academy Campus for pre-kindergarten through second grade for the new charter. The facility can serve up to 288 students, and renovations will begin in early fall.

Approved by the state Public Charter School District in April, Sumter STEAM Charter plans to begin operations in about one year, Fall 2021, with kindergarten and first-grade levels and an estimated 144 students. In year two, it plans to expand to include pre-kindergarten and second grade, Ivey added.

The long-term vision is to add one grade each year and eventually build out to 976 total students in grades preK-12. The campus structure will feature four academies in total, Ivey said, including the Primary Academy on School Street, an Elementary Academy for grades 3-5, Junior Academy for grades 6-8 and a Senior Academy for grades 9-12.

Students will be referred to as "scholars," he added.

THE LEGACY OF LIBERTY STREET ELEMENTARY

According to historical accounts, Liberty Street Elementary School on School Street was constructed at the same time and identical to Willow Drive Elementary School, located off Broad Street. Willow Drive served white children in the former District 17 in grades 1-6, while Liberty Street served Black children in the same grades in the district during segregation in the 1950s and '60s.

Construction costs for both schools were the same, and they featured modern architectural designs for the time, according to The Sumter Item historian Sammy Way.

At the time, the new school in south Sumter was considered a major boost to educating Black children locally. It was the first grades 1-6 public school for African-Americans in Sumter and operated as such until 1969. After sixth grade, Black students in District 17 then went to the former Lincoln High School for grades 7-12.

According to living alumni of Liberty Street Elementary, its legacy is one of excellence and pride in transforming the lives of African-American children who sought social justice and equality.

In a similar manner, Ivey and Thompson said they think it's symbolic for the school to begin its work of transforming the lives of its young scholars in the former Liberty Street Elementary.

"The board wishes to continue the Liberty legacy of excellence and pride," Ivey said, "by providing school choice to Sumter County families who simply want a fresh alternative to the status quo."

In that regard, the board also currently desires to rename Sumter STEAM Charter in honor of the Liberty legacy.

"In much of the Sumter community, the Liberty legacy is synonymous with the advancement of individuals who were, at one time, marginalized by an existing system," Ivey said. "In the presence of continued academic inequity, we would like to officially rename Sumter STEAM Charter in honor of the Liberty legacy to further align ourselves with a legacy that is already associated with the plight of those before us who sought social justice and equality."

INTENTIONALLY LOCATED IN SOUTH SUMTER

Though the charter will be open to all children in Sumter County, south Sumter is a focus area, according to Ivey and Thompson.

It has been a struggling economic area for at least a generation, and the new charter's founding board wants to help promote and develop the area. The establishment of the school is a first step.

"The facility that we have finally acquired began its work of transforming the lives of its children, who at that point in time had the most to gain," Ivey said. "And here we are some 75 years down the road. This is the building that we have landed on, and it goes to the heart of our mission statement. It could not be a more perfect fit in the total alignment of fulfilling our mission because we're on a mission to make a clear-cut difference in the lives of children - particularly the children in the Sumter community who need it the most."

ONLINE SURVEY FOR RENAMING

To obtain community feedback on name change possibilities for the charter school, administrators launched an online survey Thursday.

According to Ivey, the public is encouraged to provide input in the renaming via a short survey available on the school's website, www.sumtersteamcharter.org, and its social media platforms.

Liberty Street Elementary School alumni are especially encouraged to share their feedback and can do so by calling or texting (803) 216-5745 in lieu of the online survey. The survey is available online through Thursday.

The charter's founding board of directors will receive a presentation on name change options at its Aug. 10 meeting, Ivey added.

NEXT STEPS FOR CHARTER

To educate families more on the new charter, school leaders will begin "family preview sessions" throughout Sumter County in late September, Ivey said.

More community awareness events will also be offered about the same time. The official enrollment period for the 2021-22 school year opens Oct. 1.

More information is available on the charter's website.

According to state law, charter schools offer alternative educational opportunities separate from traditional public schools and are also tuition-free. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently governed, and they are exempt from some state regulations. Most charter schools in the state are required to admit students from anywhere in their sponsor district using a lottery admissions process.