Originally created 04/01/04

Former video poker hall will soon house pupils



John Gratop walks through dark, dusty hallways in the old video poker building on Martintown Road. He points to barren walls and floors, envisioning sparkling chalkboards, desks and excited pupils in every room.

"It doesn't look exactly like a school yet," said Mr. Gratop, the new administrator for Fox Creek High School, a charter school set to open in August, "but it's not far off."

The former 22-room gambling center just a quarter mile north of Interstate 20 will soon be transformed into a campus that will give Edgefield County parents a new option about where to send their children to high school.

Pupils at the southern end of the county in the Merriwether community must now attend the county's lone high school - Strom Thurmond High School - more than an hour away by school bus. Merriwether community leaders urged the Edgefield County school board to open an additional high school in their area for more than 20 years, Mr. Gratop said, but they were unsuccessful.

"I think the people realized a charter school was the only way to get a high school in their community," he said.

There are no longer video poker machines in the building, but Mr. Gratop, currently an assistant director at the Aiken County school district's Career Center, said he bets he won't have any trouble attracting interested teachers and pupils to the school.

"This school will be successful because of the parental involvement," he said. "In most high schools, parents back off and kids are left on their own, but we will have parents in the school, in the classroom to make that relationship work. We have already had a great response from the community."

Robyn Verdery, the chairwoman of the Merriwether Charter School Association Board, wrote the grant application for the school and said she has already received some of the $220,000 in federal money needed to open the school.

More communities across the state are opening charter schools each year, said Catherine Samulski, the South Carolina Department of Education associate for charter and magnet schools. There are 19 charter schools across the state - including two in Aiken County - and nine additional charter schools will open in the fall, she said.

Mr. Gratop said Fox Creek High will be different from Strom Thurmond High.

"This isn't an ordinary school. We want 100 percent participation in clubs, and we will have self-directed programs so students can learn at their own pace," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunities we will provide to these kids, and with a small staff I think we will have some unique learning strategies."

Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395 or peter.gilchrist@augustachronicle.com