AIKEN - In just a few days, Jackie Rosswurm plans to make South Carolina history by submitting the first application in the state to establish a charter school.
The retired teacher and former principal of A.G. McCracken Middle School in Beaufort, along with an 85-member citizen committee, devoted more than 1,000 hours in recent months to gaining public input for the planned Lighthouse Charter School in Hilton Head.
She also helped draft the lengthy written application to be submitted to Beaufort County's school board some time this week, all in pursuit of what she calls a viable schooling choice within - not instead of - the public school system.
And it likely won't be long before other districts in the state follow suit after legislation allowing the independently formed schools was passed in July.
Aiken County's school board paved the way for charter school applications to be considered at its last meeting Nov. 26. Both Aiken and Edgefield counties will begin accepting applications for the schools in January.
Charter schools typically serve smaller enrollments than normal schools - anywhere from 10 to 1,200 students - and offer curriculums that go beyond their school district counterparts.
Some have a special emphasis such as science or the arts and others serve special groups, such as dropouts.
Ms. Rosswurm anticipates having between 250 and 450 students in her school enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade, with pre-school and family literacy programs also offered.
Though the school will include a curriculum typical of public schools, it will also strongly emphasize the arts and offer what Ms. Rosswurm calls "lifelong athletics" programs.
"Not those team sports, but athletics or exercise programs you'd be involved with after leaving school," she said, giving martial arts and weightlifting as examples.
Ms. Rosswurm, a 29-year public school veteran, said she chose to head the charter school project because it offers a greater range of opportunities within the public school system.
"Right now the only choice you have within the public school system is where you live; our school will be open to all of Beaufort County," she said. "I think the wonderful thing about a charter school is that you can really create a school that meets the needs of the people who want to be involved in it. It doesn't have to be a one-size-fits-all situation."
Ms. Rosswurm said it could take three years for a permanent site for the school to be built, and organizers are already working to find a temporary building for the school.
Some of the more than 500 charter schools located in 25 states and the District of Columbia operate in nontraditional facilities like old churches or recreational facilities, according to a 1995 study done on the schools by the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan, nonprofit education advisory council based in Denver.
The Lighthouse Charter School could be up and running by fall 1997 if the application is approved, a process that takes at least 30 days.
If an application is denied, a party has 10 days to amend the application or appeal it to both the state and local school boards. If remanded by the state, the local school board has 30 days to make a final decision.
Ellen Henderson, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina School Boards Association, said she's pleased with the way the legislation is written, because it gives the final word for approval of a charter school to the local school board.
But that final word could defeat the intended independence of the schools, said Alex Medler, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States.
"The district can say, `We allow you to form charter schools, but you have to do this, this and this,'°" Mr. Medler said. "So the question of autonomy gradually diminishes."
Ms. Henderson said it's too early to tell how many charter schools are likely to form in the state. Since passing charter school legislation earlier this year, North Carolina has already received 67 applications to begin schools. Georgia on the other hand, has seen only 10 charter schools form since legislation cleared the way for them in 1993.
The first of those, Addison Elementary School, has been operating as a charter school for two years after being converted from a public school, the only way Georgia charter schools can be formed.
"It's been smooth and rocky," said the school's principal, Carolyn Jurick. "The systems don't quite know how to react to a school by itself within its system. They don't always quite know what to do with you. But the best thing is that teachers and parents become responsible for the authority they are given."
Here is a list of requirements for charter schools in South Carolina: