10 Questions with River Ridge Academy Principal Gary McCulloch

Construction on River Ridge Academy, the Beaufort County School District’s newest school, began last summer. The facility, which will teach kids in prekindergarten through eighth grade, is near the intersection of Bluffton Parkway and S.C. 170 and will open with an enrollment of about 900 students. The school will be home to the River Ridge Raiders, with school colors of purple, black and silver. Here are 10 questions Hilton Head Monthly asked new principal Gary McCulloch.

Hilton Head Monthly: Is construction complete?

McCulloch: Yes, we’re done. Our furniture has been delivered, and we’ll open on Monday, Aug. 17.  This has been a very exciting process because we’ve been able to see the building grow from a hole in the ground into a dynamic schoolhouse that hundreds of kids will attend.

Monthly: Are there any aspects of the school’s design that you particularly like?

McCulloch: I like the way the wings separate our elementary students from our middle school students. It’s important for middle school students to have a distinct sense of identity in a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school. They will love their own hallway with lockers. We have extra-large math and science classrooms that will give our students the ability to have flexible and safe lab spaces. I also love our media center. It has a wonderful balance of elementary and middle school “feel” to it, with café tables for middle school kids and circle-type spaces for elementary students. Our gymnasium is top-notch, and I’m really looking forward to the memories that we’ll create there.

Monthly: You were the principal at Beaufort Elementary School while River Ridge was being built. What was that like?

McCulloch: It’s been a balancing act, that’s for sure.  But I was very fortunate to have a strong assistant principal in Melissa Holland, who was recently named as principal at Beaufort Elementary. She’s worked hard with our students and families in Beaufort so that I could devote increasing amounts of time and energy to River Ridge. Thanks to Melissa and the great staff at Beaufort Elementary, I’ve been able to meet and talk with many Bluffton-area families and students during our school choice fair and a follow-up meeting with parents who were specifically interested in River Ridge. I’ve also been fortunate to meet with student focus groups to help our faculty planning.

Monthly: From a principal’s perspective, what was at the top of your to-do list once you started focusing exclusively on River Ridge?

McColluch: That’s an easy one. Over the past couple of months, my primary focus has been on hiring about 100 top-quality teachers and staff who share a passion for student learning and building quality relationships.  I’m really happy with our team, and I’m confident that our River Ridge community will be very pleased.

Monthly: How do you start from scratch, in terms of hiring a complete faculty and staff?

McColluch: You start with a vision. I’ve been very transparent when it comes to what I’m passionate about, and that’s kids. During our parent meeting and also during my meeting with teachers who were exploring the idea of applying for jobs at River Ridge, we talked at great length about what quality schools look like, even what they sound like. We spoke about our two school choice programs – Montessori and Project Lead the Way – and the characteristics of the teachers we would need to drive those programs. We spoke about how children develop socially and emotionally, and about what it takes to create learning environments that help students succeed.  We really took our time during the hiring process so we could make sure we had a terrific team in place for our kids.

Monthly: Have you received any feedback from your soon-to-be parents and community members? 

McCulloch: The feedback was overwhelming at the school choice information fair and the parent interest meetings.  Many of our parents were actually important leaders in their previous schools, and they have stepped up to volunteer their expertise and time to make River Ridge Academy a truly great school. Parents want the best environment for their kids.  They want them to be challenged and to love their school. It’s been obvious to me that they share my passion for student growth and development.

Monthly: River Ridge Academy will have two curriculum choices: Montessori and Project Lead the Way. What are they, exactly?

McCulloch: Montessori education supports children’s natural development and encourages them to develop their creativity, to think critically and solve problems and manage their own time. It has mixed-age classrooms, it allows students to make individual choices about their research and work, and it gives them time for uninterrupted concentration. I think you’ll find that Montessori students really enjoy their learning, so they can better remember what they learn. Students who aren’t enrolled in Montessori will participate in our focused STEM program, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It’s called Project Lead the Way in kindergarten through fifth grades, and it leads directly into Gateway to Technology in middle school and to Project Lead the Way in high school. It’s a hands-on, project-based curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving. The kids will learn that it’s OK to take risks and make mistakes on the road to success.

Monthly: Why were those two instructional choices selected?

McCulloch: Montessori education is typically offered only by private schools, so we’re very fortunate to have a supportive superintendent and board of education members who want to offer more options to students and their parents. The few public schools that offer it generally have waiting lists, so it’s something that’s customer-driven in addition to being an approach that I personally believe to be very effective.  We also offered it at my previous school, Beaufort Elementary, so I really wanted it at River Ridge. STEM was basically a no-brainer when you understand how many of tomorrow’s most exciting careers are based on those disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math. 

Monthly: Why use a prekindergarten to eighth grade structure, which basically means combining prekindergarten, elementary and middle schools into one building?

McCulloch: As a former middle school principal, I’ve always found that the transition to middle school can be difficult for many kids. You often have several elementary schools feeding into the same middle school, and each one of those elementary schools might have a different way of doing things. So when students come to a middle school from those kinds of differing experiences, it can be difficult to fit in. Academics can take a back seat to social acceptance.  Our school will focus heavily on social and emotional development and on academic consistencies that afford our students a quality learning environment and create seamless transitions within our building. From a practical perspective, many parents also like the idea that their children will be here, in the same learning environment, for nine years. That’s attractive, having several kids all at the same school.

Monthly: What’s something the Bluffton community might be interested in knowing about you?

McCulloch: I’m a former professional soccer player, so I understand the kind of commitment, discipline and drive it takes to accomplish your goals. School should be exciting. We’ve got to listen to our kids and create academic learning environments that they find relevant and enjoyable. Growing up, I never knew my schools’ principals. I pride myself on building quality relationships with kids and their families. We have a tremendous opportunity here. Our teachers — and many of our students and parents — have selected River Ridge Academy for a reason. Nearly 200 of our kids live outside our attendance zone and applied to come here through the district’s school choice program. I’m confident that we can harness all of that support and use it to create a school that others will look to as a model. Go Raiders!