COVID-19 kept Piedmont Community Charter School from formally marking the completion of its new high school campus in Gastonia, but all of the school’s students are finally enjoying it together.
“It’s an absolute dream come true,” said Jennifer Killen, Piedmont Charter’s head of school who began working at the school 19 years ago as a teacher’s assistant. She never imagined she would have a hand in building a new high school campus. “My heart is just full of gratefulness.”
Here are several key takeaways from the new campus:
Charter school’s largest investment
Piedmont Charter’s new campus cost the school $20 million and features a 70,000-square-foot school building with 32 classrooms on two floors, a full-sized gymnasium for basketball and volleyball games, as well as physical education, a fine arts auditorium with more than 300 seats and an outdoor soccer field.
To put that in perspective, the school’s South New Hope Road campus, which now serves grades five through eight, cost the school just more than $5 million by the time it opened in 2010, according to Piedmont Charter.
Classrooms at the new school, which are fitted with Apple TVs and sound bars, include two science labs, a guitar classroom, a dance classroom, fine arts classrooms and a health sciences classroom.
Many of the school’s features, such as a large commons area to be used for lunch and smaller student commons on each floor, have yet to be fully used by students due to the pandemic. The student commons have floor-to-ceiling dry erase walls meant for collaboration among students.
Piedmont Charter no longer needs to borrow facilities
Some of the most notable perks of the new campus include facilities made specifically for school use, said High School Director Ernie Bridges.
Prior to the pandemic and the new school, theater arts didn’t have a home stage to perform on, nor did the school’s sports team have home fields. The school’s theater arts department used the Little Theater of Gastonia to perform, and the school’s sports teams used other venues across the county to play on.
“Theater arts has a better facility to put on performances,” he said. “We’re able to have home basketball games, home volleyball games, home soccer games for boys and girls instead of going to somebody else’s site.”
Devan Tharp, now a junior on the basketball team, has attended Piedmont Charter since kindergarten. Tharp and his teammates enjoy seeing their school colors as they run up and down the court they now call home.
“We used to play at a church for basketball. Now we get to see our logo on the court and have our own home floor. It feels like an actual high school,” he said.
Though there’s not an associated timeline, the school plans to build a baseball and softball complex at the Robinwood Road campus.
Student morale is high despite the pandemic
High school students used to share a building with middle school students but now have their own space, which has generated a newfound school spirit.
“The biggest thing is just having our own school now,” said Nataleigh Turlington, a senior who has attended Piedmont Charter since kindergarten. “Now we have all of our own classrooms.”
Turlington and her fellow students also didn’t have a traditional first day of school in their new building. The students began the school year completely online, and later transitioned to in-person learning four days a week. Some students opted to remain learning remotely.
Once high school students moved into the new building earlier this school year, Bridges noticed a substantial increase in school pride and morale from last school year to this school year, despite any pandemic dampers. It feels like a completely different student body, he said, and he expects morale to increase in the coming years.
“I’m noticed elevated pride in the kids, and the other thing that I’m seeing is they’re really taking care of it,” he said. “I only see that going up when we’re all in-person and we’re not wearing masks.”
More students and employees
Opening the new campus allowed the charter school to free up space at the elementary campus, located on East Second Avenue, and middle school campus.
Piedmont Charter hired an additional teacher for each grade level in grades kindergarten through fourth grade, and two additional teachers for each grade level in grades five through eight.
High school enrollment alone increased from 366 students during the 2019-20 school year to 574 this school year. The high school campus has a capacity of 600, according to Killen.
K-12 enrollment at Piedmont Charter increased by 500 students to a total of 1,800, according to the school. Killen expects the Piedmont Charter’s total enrollment to reach 1,900 students next school year.
Career and technical education will be a focus
Business and health sciences programs will be a new focus at Piedmont Charter.
A mathematics teacher at the school began offering business classes at the school this school year.
Bridges hopes to soon partner with Gaston College so students in Piedmont Charter’s health sciences program can earn nursing certifications as they finish high school.
Students have shown promising, long-term interest in the programs – especially health sciences, Bridges said. The school currently offers three health sciences courses, which each have more than 20 students in them.
“We’re filled up in health sciences,” he said.
It nods to a Gaston County tradition
Michael Satterfield, president of Piedmont Charter’s board of directors, noted that paying tribute to Gaston County through the design of the new building was a critical aspect of the project.
Commuters who pass or stop by the high school campus – designed by Little Diversified Architectural Consulting and constructed by Rodgers Builders, both of Charlotte – may notice that the school building’s exterior aesthetic mirrors that of old textile mills throughout the county.
“It echoes some of the mill buildings you see in the county,” Satterfield said. “It’s the same rhythm [as a mill], with the glass high in the gym and the brick low.”
Much of the inspiration for the design came from a particular building along Spencer Mountain Road through Ranlo. School leaders took photos of the building before it was demolished and gave them to the architects for them to use as a guide for the exterior.
Satterfield, an architect by day, designed the school’s electronic sign along Robinwood Road.
You can reach reporter Gavin Stewart at 704-869-1819 or on Twitter @GavinGazette.