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Education: Waccamaw High marks a quarter century

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A cloud of dust rose over Kings River Road as buses rolled for the first day of school. By the time the bell rang at 8:05 a.m., all but a handful of students had found their way to their classrooms. And 25 years later, the learning continues at Waccamaw High School.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” said Parker Fox, one of 51 members of the Class of 1992. The lanky kid with the mullet haircut is now the general manager of the Hampton Inn at Litchfield.

He wasn’t the only one brought up short by the passage of time. “It’s been that long?” said Jerry Bethea, who was getting the art room ready for another year. He and Cara Cook, a special education teacher, are the last two staff members of the original 45 still working at Waccamaw High. “I had no intention of staying that long,” he said. “I forgot it was 25 years. It’s gone by so quick.”

There’s been some discussion about marking the silver anniversary, but nothing’s been decided, Principal David Hammel said. One idea is to create a hall of fame. “We’ve done a lot of things that have set us apart,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to celebrate it.”

The opening of the school on Aug. 27, 1990, followed years of lobbying by parents and other community members. Before that, the area’s one school went from kindergarten through eighth grade. Students then went to Georgetown High or Socastee High. “At Georgetown, you drove in there and they locked the gates behind you,” Fox recalled. “It was a completely different world.”

The sense of community that led to the creation of Waccamaw High carried over into the school. “There’s a warmth and acceptance that you don’t see other places,” Hammel said. “When you’re a freshman in high school and you move here someone is always going to be a friend.”

The same is true with the staff. There are eight new teachers at Waccamaw High this year and Hammel said they got help from the veterans settling in. “Even from people who aren’t in the same department,” he added.

There have been changes. The road in front of the school was paved about six months into the first school year. The atrium with its 300 panes of glass that was the signature architectural detail of the school was removed as part of a 2012 renovation. It leaked. That renovation also added a performing arts center and turned the old auditorium into a media center. More classrooms were added, complementing additions in 2000 and 2005. Hammel expects about 860 students this year. The school opened with 445 students, but only 253 were in high school. The rest were seventh- and eighth-graders who moved over from what is now Waccamaw Elementary School.

“We thought we were hot stuff going to high school,” said Kristy Harbaugh, who was an eighth-grader in August 1990. She is now the office manager at Coastal Montessori Charter School. “My favorite story to tell people is that when it rained we got out of school early because the buses would get stuck in the mud,” she said.

“It was an exciting time,” said Chase McGill, who was part of the sophomore class in 1990. “The thing I remember was the road wasn’t paved. Your car was always white, except when it rained.”

But the shorter travel time and the smaller classes made up for the road, said McGill, now an attorney with the McNair Law Firm. “There were good opportunities to participate,” he said. McGill remembered Bethea as his JV basketball coach, particularly for a inbound play under the basket where everyone would fall on the court except the player who got the ball.

Fox remembered being named Most Athletic in his senior year. “I didn’t even play a sport,” he said.

Not everyone was thrilled. Some students didn’t like the idea of leaving the larger Georgetown High for the startup. Only a few seniors were willing to make the move, so Waccamaw High only had a junior class in 1990-91.

Fox recalled that coming to Waccamaw High was like a reunion for kids who had grown up going to the Waccamaw school together. “We knew everybody,” he said. “I couldn’t stand going to Georgetown. It was just too big for me.”

But the smaller school also had to do without some of the programs of its bigger neighbors.

That first year Fox felt that the teachers were learning along with the students.

“I was excited,” Bethea said. His previous classroom in Orangeburg County had been in a trailer. He first came to interview for a job at Georgetown. He was offered jobs at Andrews and Choppee, which later merged into Carvers Bay High. The district called again and took him to Waccamaw, where there was only a foundation and walls. “They showed me the room and I said, ‘Wow!” he recalled. “I didn’t know anything about the area.”

Fox and McGill didn’t leave Waccamaw with a sense of establishing traditions. Bethea said that idea didn’t set in for a couple of years. Harbaugh, who was president of her senior class, recalled that homecomings and proms created traditions. She lobbied to move graduation from the auditorium to the gym so more people could attend. It’s been there ever since.

It took a while for the school to build a reputation. Bethea remembers taking students to Columbia to receive art awards. People had never heard of Waccamaw High. Although the school has made its mark in many areas, “I see a tradition of academic here,” Bethea said. “I had no idea the school was going to turn out as good at academics as it did.”

“Waccamaw has jumped out of the shadow of Georgetown,” said Hammel. He was a freshman at Roanoke College in August 1990. He planned to become a pharmacist, but became a teacher and was hired in 1994 to teach science at Waccamaw. “I really wanted to go back to the mountains,” he said, but he was spending the summer at his grandmother’s camping trailer in Myrtle Beach. After a series of moves around the state and within the district, Hammel became principal at Waccamaw High in 2009.

The opening of the high school marked a period of steady growth in the community. The school-age population of Waccamaw Neck nearly doubled between 1990 and 2010, to over 2,600. The school conducts 40 to 50 tours for new or prospective residents a year, Hammel said. “I never would have thought 25 years ago the area would have grown like it has,” Fox said. “Four schools; it just blows me away.”

Warriors: Students can thank the NBA for school colors

Before they voted, middle school students received a warning: “Your children and grandchildren and everybody else will be stuck with what you do.”

It was May 1988 and architects were drawing up plans for Waccamaw High, a $7.3 million project due for completion in two years. They needed a mascot and they needed school colors. So Georgetown County School District officials turned to the students who would be the first to enter the new school.

“Eight of us in seventh or eighth grade got picked for a council to pick the name and colors,” said Parker Fox, who entered Waccamaw High in its first junior class.

The committee narrowed the choices before the other students voted. “This school is being built for students, and students will make those decisions,” said Cliff Dodson, the superintendent. They short-listed Gators, the mascot from the former Winyah High. The district decided that name needed to be retired. Besides, Dodson said, “You want this school to be unique.”

Instead, the students took their inspiration from Michael Jordan. “That was when the Chicago Bulls were so popular,” said Chase McGill, who was in seventh grade at the time.

“That’s why Waccamaw is red and black,” Fox said. “Just because of the Bulls.”

The vote wasn’t even close: 156 for the red and black, 45 for blue and white.

Bulls was among the mascots considered by the committee – along with Dolphins, Tigers, Bears, Sharks and Stingrays. The finalists were Warriors, Hurricanes and Wave Warriors. “We thought Warriors sounded a little bit tougher,” Fox said. It got 105 votes.

The Native American warrior won out over a Viking-style warrior. And Dodson was right when he told the students “the selection that you make will stay made for years and years.” Next year, Fox’s son Ryan will be a freshman.

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