Originally created 11/30/97

Young Pioneers



AIKEN - When Kelly Bratcher got off the plane in Augusta on her way to Aiken Preparatory School in September, a bit of culture - or rather environmental - shock hit the 13-year-old schoolgirl from South Dakota: a blast of heat and humidity.

"It would probably be snowing now in Sioux Falls," she said on a balmy October day in Aiken, where she sipped vegetable soup in the lunchroom of Aiken Preparatory school.

Kelly is one of four girls enrolled in the first class of female boarders at Aiken Prep.

Located near downtown Aiken beneath the live oaks on Barnwell Avenue, parts of the school are still housed in the building that opened its doors in 1916.

Aiken Preparatory School was founded by Louise Eustis Hitchcock, a prominent member of Aiken's famed Winter Colony, which once numbered more than 100 households of a distinct though seasonal community. These wealthy winter residents of Aiken introduced the horse industry and other social amenities alien to a small, inland village at the turn of the century.

In Forever Flourishing: A History of Aiken Preparatory School, Donald M. Law writes that Mrs. Hitchcock enlisted other residents of the colony to establish a school in Aiken for their sons to avoid having to send them away from their winter homes in Aiken.

Today Aiken Prep is a combined boarding and day school with 182 students, including 71 girls. There are 25 boys living in two dormitories attached to the main building.

Aiken Prep has an international student body, with boarders from the Far East and Latin America. Day students reside in the Aiken area. Lee from South Korea and Amanda-Hunter Taylor from Minnesota - are not the first girls to join the boys at the historic school. In 1989, Aiken Prep merged with Aiken Day School, and girls began attending classes as day students.

"It was not that radical," said Headmaster Allen Adriance of the decision to allow female boarding students. "The school has been coed since 1989."

In fact, girls studied at Aiken Prep for a time just two years after the school opened in 1916. Five girls from Winter Colony families were enrolled for a year until Fermata School opened, according to Mr. Law. Once the private school for girls was available, the girls left Aiken Prep. Until the Fermata School closed after World War II, the two shared a brother-sister relationship in games, swimming and other activities.

Coming to Aiken Prep has meant a change for the girls, however, and they are still getting accustomed to their new living arrangements in Hall House, a separate boarding facility and the newest addition to the campus.

The girls live in the four-bedroom cottage donated last spring by Winter Colony resident Julia T. Hall. The house was renovated extensively during the summer under the supervision of George Mahan, director of facilities. It was dedicated Oct. 24.

Although all the girls are veteran private school students, all are also a long way from home. Of course, they miss their parents and, of course, they miss the familiar food served at home, especially the Korean girls.

Nevertheless, they seem to flourish in the family atmosphere with house parent John Gallagher, his wife, Maria, and their 9-month-old son, Quetzal.

For Kelly, baby Quetzal makes the difference. When she walks into the communal living room, Quetzal reaches for her with two little arms lifted up, and she takes him to cradle and frolic on the floor.

Kelly is just back from a pingpong game with her friend Peter.

"You should see that pingpong table," she says rolling her eyes. "It's too small."

"Yes, it's a small table," admits resident director Rod Gerdsen.

Kelly takes only a little teasing about her friend, Peter, and insists that they are just best friends. The girls and the boys do get together during activity periods, but the girls are glad they do not live in the boys' dormitories about 200 yards away.

"We have our own bath, with shower curtains," says Amanda-Hunter, noting the boys' traditional, less private facilities.

Amanda-Hunter said she believes a coeducational campus is best for all concerned because it is a reflection of the world they will enter after school.

They are far from isolated in Hall House, according to Mr. Gerdsen. Every student at Aiken Prep must take part in physical activities, some of which are coeducational.

Today, Kelly is impatient for horseback riding to begin.

"In about two weeks," says Mr. Gerdsen.

Any student may take riding lessons at one of the many stables of the community, and Kelly, who has her own horses back home, was eager to return to her favorite sport.

As director of residents, Mr. Gerdsen is always on call. He must shepherd his newest charges and make sure they adjust to the school even as the institution itself is undergoing change.

"It's a brand new program for us, and we are still ironing out a few wrinkles," he says.

The girls follow the same highly structured regimen as the 25 boys who live on campus. "We are trying hard to avoid double standards," he says.

Students are up at 7 a.m. and breakfast between 7:15 and 7:45. Classes begin at 8, and lunch is at 12:30 p.m. Classes are over at 3, and mandatory sports or physical education begins at 3:30 and lasts until 4:30.

"We think physical exercise, especially at these ages, is essential to overall development," Mr. Gerdsen says.

The first study hall begins at 5 p.m. and lasts until 6. Then dinner is from 6 to 6:30. Students have free time until second study hall, between 7:30 and 8:45. Bedtime is 9, with lights out at 10.

"Sometimes we get busted," smiles Amanda-Hunter, Kelly's roommate and also a seventh-grader. "There's a knock on the door and Maria says, `Shhhsh. The baby's asleep."

Mrs. Gallagher has played an important role in the girls' adjustment to their new surroundings and has an easy, familiar relationship with them.

Unlike Kelly, Amanda-Hunter has spent extensive time in the South. She was born here and her family has vacationed at Kiawah Island, S.C. She moved from her native Fairfax, Va., when she was 6 and lived until last year in Rochester, N.Y., which is still home to her.

It may have been a little more difficult at first for the youngest, 11-year-old Soo Yeon, because she felt unsure of her English.

"Conversationally, she's come a long way," Mrs. Gallagher said. "When she first came, she would hardly say a word, but I knew she was going to be OK the day she walked through the door and called, `Hello everybody, I'm here."'

Soo Yeon and Bit are best friends and confide in each other. At first Soo Yeon depended on Bit as her translator but now holds her own in her fifth-grade classes.

This is Bit's second stay in the United States. An eighth-grader and fluent in English, Bit spent a summer in Los Angeles, studying English, which she has studied five years.

First break for the boarders was Thanksgiving. That's when they could go home, get hugs from their parents, and eat their favorite foods.

Ordinarily, the international students would have to wait for Christmas to see their parents. But Soo Yeon's parents came to Aiken to visit her at Thanksgiving.

The girls seem hardly conscious that they have opened a new era for the historic Aiken school. Now, as midterm approaches, Amanda-Hunter, Soo Yeon, Bit and Kelly will help take Aiken Preparatory School into a new century.

For now, though, these four pioneers are more interested in what's for supper and in playing flashlight tag on the grounds with the guys from the dormitories.

As Amanda-Hunter says, "It's more like the real world."