MERRIWETHER, S.C. - The 12,000-square-foot former gambling center that sits just off Interstate 20 doesn't seem like an ideal setting for a high school.
That is, until you step inside.
In one room, a group of Fox Creek High School students are choreographing a cheerleading routine. Down the hall, a handful of students are rehearsing a one-act play.
And in a cramped classroom near the front of the 22-room former storefront sits Nancy Cowart, this year's South Carolina Public Charter School Teacher of the Year. The nationally certified English teacher beat out 23 other charter school teachers for the award, distinguishing herself in Fox Creek's first year of existence.
"It's always nice to have a pat on the back, and this year, I've eaten, slept and breathed teaching just because this is a new school, and I was studying for my master's," she said.
Fox Creek High School may not have the refined appearance of its public school counterparts, but the same can't be said for the education it provides, students, teachers and administrators there said.
Ms. Cowart's students will tell you her class is no cakewalk.
On a recent school day, she sprinted through a lesson on participles and prepositions and a creative writing and reading comprehension assignment in a span of 55 minutes.
"We don't have much lay back time in here," she said. "The attention span of the average middle school or high school student is 13 to 15 minutes. I have too much to teach for (my class) not be (fast-paced.)"
But students such as 16-year-old Cheryl Grubbs prefer it that way.
"We have to work hard, and she's always serious, but she makes it fun," the 10th-grader said.
Recognition is nothing new for Ms. Cowart, who recently earned her master's degree in education. She won teacher of the year awards at Merriwether Middle School and for the entire Edgefield County school district, and a Golden Apple Award, which recognizes outstanding teachers from the Aiken-Augusta area.
The charter school distinction, however, is especially gratifying for Ms. Cowart, who said she took a leap of faith by leaving Merriwether Middle School for Fox Creek.
"We are a first-year school, and for our school to have this recognition, this is positive," she said.
Fox Creek Principal John Gratop, who nominated Ms. Cowart for the award, said the recognition should eliminate some of the negative perceptions about the charter school.
Rose Sherlock pulled her son out of Augusta's Aquinas High School last year and enrolled him at Fox Creek before its doors opened in August.
"He studies hard, and he does a little better here," said Ms. Sherlock, a North Augusta resident.
Other parents are following Ms. Sherlock's lead.
More than 100 new students are expected to attend Fox Creek High School next year, boosting its student body to 250.
And after early criticism about the school's low minority population - it's less than 1 percent - officials are making efforts to boost that figure.
Reach Krista Zilizi at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org.