Ground was broken for construction of the new East Elementary School in Holly Hill Sept. 8.

The ceremony was attended by Orangeburg County School District Superintendent Shawn Foster, school board members, faculty, students and community members.

Several speakers at the ceremony thanked the community for supporting the $190 million bond, which included funding for the new school. Voters approved the bond issue in November 2022.

“Welcome to what you have done, because as a community, if you did not buy into Dr. Foster’s vision, you would not have voted for the bond referendum,” Orangeburg County School Board member Betty Pelzer said.

“So I want to say thank you for buying into Dr. Foster’s vision. I want to say thank you for buying into the needs of the students of this community.”

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Faculty and students from each of the three area schools that will be consolidated into the new facility upon its completion – Holly Hill Elementary, St. James Gaillard Elementary and Vance-Providence Elementary – spoke at the event, including the principals of all three schools.

“For the past 69 years, our school has done her job well,” Avaeh Pratt, a student at St. James-Gaillard Elementary School, said. “Saying goodbye will be difficult and we will have a mixture of nerves and excitement as we prepare to walk the halls of the new facility. When our students see their new building, new desks and new materials, it will really make it all worth it.”

The school will cost up to $40 million and house 750 students upon opening, with the possibility of expanding further. Construction was previously reported to be scheduled for completion in 2025.

Many said the school would not only positively impact the students, but the wider community as well.

St. James-Gaillard Principal Keonia Gillard said the new facility would be “a pillar of our community for decades to come.”

“If you know me, you know I’ve been born and raised right here in this community,” Latanya Durant, principal at Vance-Providence Elementary, said. “In my 40-plus, almost 50 years of being here, I think this is very historical, because I’ve never witnessed a brand new elementary school being built for the children and I’m very proud to be a part of this process.”

Holly Hill Principal Johnnie Smith said students were excited about the new school being built when he talked to them in a class the day before the groundbreaking.

“And with all the distractions out there, anything that gets our students excited about learning is nothing less than phenomenal,” Smith said.

Allen Taylor, principal architect with the new school’s designers LS3P, said the ongoing construction will not only provide state-of-the-art facilities for the students, but also give them a chance to see STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) throughout construction.

Many speakers thanked Foster for his role in getting the school funded and built, but he did not want to take the credit himself, he said.

“It isn’t about me,” he said. “I appreciate the sentiments, but I’ll tell you I’m not that great to do this alone.”

Aside from the financial support from the community through the bond, Foster thanked the sacrifice from staff of the three schools who may not have a job after the consolidation in the new building.

“There’s always a concern about my livelihood,” Foster said. “Who’s going to be here? What am I going to do? So it shows an even greater investment from the adults at the three schools to say ‘I’m going to take a step even when I can’t see the stairway,’ as Martin Luther King said, because I know that what’s best for those little people is most important and everything else will work itself out. So I thank them for trusting us. Not only with their dollars, but with their livelihoods and with their teachers.”

“We’re going to continue to make sure we consider those things and consider the sacrifices that they made as well. We owe it to them because they are then putting in an even greater sacrifice for those young voices you heard earlier,” Foster said.

While many were excited for the new facilities, some faculty, students and parents were also nostalgic for the original, existing structures, said Joseph Brown, school counselor and 36-year-employee at Holly Hill Elementary.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Brown said. “I always thought I would retire from Holly Hill Elementary, and I really considered doing that, but I said, ‘No, I think I’m gonna stick around just to see the transition.’ Because change is always good. I’m very excited, mainly for the kids, because they will get the opportunity to be in a new, upscale building with the latest technology, latest equipment and give them the opportunity to compete with kids from all around the state and all around the country.”

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