FORT MILL, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Growth is booming in Fort Mill, so much that the school district can’t realistically keep up with it. 

Town leaders recently executed an enrollment freeze at three schools. The action means reassigning new students to other campuses to maintain the student-teacher ratio.

The latest U.S. Census data shows that a South Carolina town has a rapidly growing population of 24,521, a 127 percent increase since 2010. 

Joseph Burke, the district’s chief communications officer, says that growth impacts classrooms. 

Right now, Gold Hill Elementary School currently has 893 students. Gold Hill Middle School has 866 students, and Pleasant Knoll Middle School has 961 students. Leaders say the numbers necessitated a freeze.

“They are reaching a point where it’s going to start to impact either class size or building capacity,” Burke told Queen City News. 

Capacity issue nothing new  

It’s not the first time the district has used this method to help control growth. Burke said that the system had made that decision for a few years now. Officials say it gives them time to address two aspects of capacity levels — educational and operational. 

On the educational front, they look at optimal class sizes for different grade levels. 

“We may have to consider increasing those beyond what we think is appropriate for each grade level,” Burke said. “That’s one factor that’s going to go into it. And then there’s the operational capacity; you can only run so many kids through a cafeteria on a daily basis or dismiss so many cars in the afternoon before it gets to a point where the facility can’t handle it.” 

Parents are concerned about the move and how the freeze will impact transportation and transition times.

“The district has set up shuttles that will take them to their assigned schools in the morning and then return them to their school to take their normal bus in the afternoon,” he said. 

A hot spot to live

Fort Mill real estate agent Stephanie Haselrig believes the freeze will be fine for the town’s housing market. 

“It’s definitely slowed down. But it’s, by no means, crawling or lost its life. As you may be aware, all the buzz is that Zillow has ranked Charlotte as the number one or hottest market to move to for 2023. So, by no means, will this have a tremendous impact on people moving to the Fort Mill area. Most of the clients I speak with from outside the Carolinas and moving to this area, are just interested in moving across the board,” Haselrig said. 

Haselrig added that, compared to Charlotte, homebuyers want to be in Fort Mill for lower taxes and the school district’s high ranking when they “do their research.”

Burke says it’s not about having enough teachers. It’s all about the space in the schools. The district says the freeze will last at least until the end of the school year. Afterward, they will reassess the capacity levels. 

“The students do enjoy a lot of times the school that they end up attending. That’s a nice thing about Fort Mill – all of our schools are very highly rated. They can get the same opportunities at one school that they can get in another,” Burke said. 

“And in this particular freeze, we’ve even taken one other step to ensure those friendships that may happen. So at the middle school level, Pleasant Knoll students because that is a feeder middle school for two different high schools. What we’ve done is we’re splitting the assigned school. We’re going to have the kids who are zoned for Nation Ford go to Springfield Middle School because that’s where the Nation Ford will feed students in. And the kids there zoned for Fort Mill will go to Banks Trail, so they’ll be with the kids that will feed into their high school. So we’re really taking a lot of extra steps to ensure that the kids are going to get as close to a normal opportunity as every other street in the district.”

Answering the questions

Q: What is a favorable student-to-teacher ratio? 

A: “Well, that would depend on the class size. I mean, obviously, you want to have lower class sizes at the elementary level. That goes up a little bit at the middle and it goes up again in high school depending on the subject matter. So you do want to have the lower class sizes at the elementary and the early middle school ages. But again, even that would depend on grade level. So but that is something we monitor with all of our classes in the schools that help us determine when it’s time to do this. For right now, the freeze is active for the remainder of this school year. Any time we put in a freeze when we get to summer, kids move up to the next great kids matriculate in and out of schools. We reassess. And if there is capacity in that school, we will go back to those students that were impacted by the freeze and offer them a chance to return if there’s a place for them to do so. Surprisingly, when we offer that to them, many of those students say, “No, I’m good. I love the school that I’m at.”

Q: Is this legal? 

A“It’s legal for us to move students around for schools. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of school districts that have open zoning for their schools. They allow student choice to go to different schools. So it’s not safe for us to put a building over capacity or put students in there. So that obviously would be another factor in figuring out whether we are allowed to do this. But yes, we’ve been performing freezes for a better part of the last 5 to 6 years, at least because of our growth in the district.”

Q: Will kids who are moving up to middle school next year still be able to attend their assigned school? 

A: “We want to make it as seamless for the parents as we can, so if their students are going to ride a bus, they’re going to ride that same bus to their own school. The district has set up shuttles that will take them to their assigned school in the morning and then return them to their school to take their normal bus home in the afternoon. So there is a little transition period, but we also do that to keep it normal for the kids. And they don’t have to, you know, go pick up a different bus in a different neighborhood or something along those lines.”

Q: Does this affect after-school activities like tutoring?

A: “All the students will still have the opportunity to participate in after-school sports, extracurricular activities, all of those things, just as they would if they were at there’s own school. And a lot of those things obviously happen after transportation time anyway. If you’re playing football at the middle school, you’re not taking a bus home for practice. So that would be back on the parents to work out the transportation portion as it would be in the zone school.”