By Dustin Turner

School choice isn’t reserved just for college anymore. When it comes to K-12, parents can choose public school, private school or charter/magnet school. What do you do if your child excels in sports or wants to focus on art? What do you focus on when choosing schools?

Dr. Ann Marie Taylor, the lead learner (aka executive director) of Horse Creek Academy in Aiken, says that a school’s vision or mission is an important factor.

“You need to understand where the school is going and what it wants out of its students,” she says. “Look at the people in the school. The thing that impacts student achievement most is the classroom teacher. I can be the best lead learner in the world, but if I don’t have great teachers rockin’ it out, it doesn’t work.”

Chris Gay, the communications director at Augusta Preparatory Day School, spent much of his career as a sports journalist and coaches the school’s varsity baseball team. It’s great if your child excels in and wants to focus on sports, he says, but academics still have to come first.

“So many kids want to focus on sports with the goal of being a professional athlete,” he says, “but the reality is that so few ever make it to the pros. I’d hate to see a student put all of his or her hopes into going pro but wind up sitting on the bench during recruitment because of an injury and have nothing to fall back on.”

He says Augusta Prep doesn’t like to pigeonhole students into one thing, whether it’s athletics, arts or anything else. “We feel like if kids come to Augusta Prep, they get a well-rounded experience. You get a quality education, and you’re also exposed to the arts and athletics.”

Columbia County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sandra Carraway says public schools afford students a “multitude of choices and opportunities” when it comes to arts and sports. “All of our high schools have strong athletics programs with a variety of sports, maybe some parents haven’t even considered because they didn’t know they existed. We even offer flag football for girls and fly-fishing teams.”

For the arts-inclined students, most public high schools offer a variety of programs, including drama and theatre, visual arts, chorus and show choir.

Public Schools

Carraway sees several advantages to attending public school, not the least of which is location. With few exceptions, which public school a child attends is determined by where the family lives.

“Your children can go to school with their neighborhood friends and still focus on their areas of interest in a quality educational environment,” Carraway says.

Another advantage is that parents are already paying for public school through taxes. “It’s a free, exceptional education we offer in Columbia County.”

Public schools are larger than most alternatives, but Carraway sees that as a good thing. It affords students more choices when it comes to participating in athletics or arts, she says, and gives them more athletic competition and scholarship opportunities.

“The beauty of it all is that Columbia County schools rank in the top 10 percent across the state, so our students can excel in every area, and it’s free to attend,” Carraway says.

Parents can call a school and ask to meet with a principal or counselor to get a tour, learn about opportunities there and get a feel for the climate of the school. “Our public schools are a lot like ice cream,” Carraway says. “All ice cream is good but each school has its own flavor, so to speak.”

Public schools are representative of their communities, Carraway points out, serving children of all walks of life and giving them more ways to thrive in academics, athletics, arts or technical opportunities.

“I just can’t say it enough that before parents determine their children would be better off homeschooled or in a private school,” Dr. Carraway says, “they need to visit one of our public schools and see what all we have to offer.”

Charter Schools

Charter schools are independently run public schools granted greater flexibility in their operations in return for greater accountability for performance. The charter establishing each school details its mission, program, students served, performance goals and methods of assessment.

Charter schools can have a specific focus. SAIL in Columbia County, for example, is the School for Arts Infused Learning, offering a focus on arts. In Richmond County, magnet schools, such as A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School, operate similarly.

Horse Creek Academy in Aiken County is an academic charter for grades 4K-9. Tenth grade will be added in 2021-22; 11th grade in 2022-23; and 12th grade 2023-24. It focuses on academics and, like public schools, offers many opportunities for students who want to explore arts and athletics.

“A big advantage of being a charter school,” says Taylor, the lead learner, “is that we get to make decisions locally, which cuts out a lot of red tape. We have a board of directors that is elected from our families. They make fiscal and policy decisions just for us, not an entire district.”

HCA places a heavy emphasis on relationships. “Parents have better access to me than say to [Aiken County schools superintendent] King Lawrence or the district office. I’m here every day. Every administrator here teaches, too. I teach social studies and criminology.”

Taylor says that with a smaller student body and more flexibility, charter schools can focus on relationships. For example, “we do restorative justice that tries to create relationships. If there’s a disciplinary problem, we try to make things right, especially if there’s a victim. We don’t just look to suspend or expel.”

Because students can start in 4K and go through graduation in one school, families with children of different ages don’t have to pick up their kids at two or three schools.

“It also fosters a feeling of family among the students, their families and the teachers,” Taylor says. “We’re all in it for the long haul.”

HCA offers a variety of programs in visual, digital and performing arts. As for athletics, students can choose from baseball, basketball, cheerleading, skeet shooting, cross country, track and field, soccer, softball and volleyball. Most arts and athletics options are offered from elementary through high school.

As for transportation, all students have to be car-riders. Families must provide transportation to and from school. Transportation for sports competitions is provided by teachers, coaches and parent volunteers. The school does thorough background checks on volunteers and vehicle inspections before allowing volunteers to transport students.

HCA is not restricted to people who live in a specific district. Students come to the Aiken County school from North Augusta and Lexington. The only residency requirement for SAIL, in Columbia County, is to live in Georgia.

“At the end of the day, we are moving and doing things. There is a lot of excitement and energy,” Taylor says. “We had over 400 students on last year’s waitlist, so we know people want to be a part of it.”

Private Schools

Gay, the communications director at Augusta Prep, says private schools are a “land of opportunity because you can do a lot of different things here. Even in high school, we have a motorsports engineering class.” The Upper School students even built a cart from scratch and drove it around the parking lot.

Gay’s children attend Augusta Prep and each has embraced different opportunities. One son plays several sports, and his daughter enjoys theatre.

Because private schools often have small class sizes, they have been able to weather the COVID crisis well. “We have been able to spread out and spend a lot of time socially distanced outside.”

Private schools also tend to allow more opportunities to participate in athletics. “I coach varsity baseball, and unlike public schools, we don’t have cuts. There are kids in many sports who play for Prep that wouldn’t have the opportunity to play in public schools.”

Like many private schools, Augusta Prep has students in K-12.

“We are a college prep school. Some people say that begins in high school, but we like to think it starts earlier than that,” Gay says. “Our goal isn’t to just get kids to college, though. It’s to prepare them to be successful, to understand and to be prepared for what’s out there.”

Augusta Prep has a state-of-the-art auditorium and performs theatrical and musical shows in the lower, middle and upper schools. There also are a variety of visual arts classes, including ceramics and other mediums, chorus and more.

At the varsity level, Augusta Prep is a member of the Georgia Independent School Association and Region 4-AAA and competes in 19 varsity sports, including baseball, basketball, clay target shooting, cheerleading, cross country, football, golf, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field and volleyball.

“No matter what, though, it still comes down to academics,” Gay says. “Augusta Prep is a great school to get a well-rounded education while participating in a variety of sports or arts programs.”

Dustin Turner is the Communications and Content Manager for Alison South Marketing Group. He lives in Aiken with his amazing, beautiful and very patient wife of 22 years, Jamie, and their artistic, sassy and fierce daughter, Abigail, 12. Dustin enjoys writing, shooting and editing video and acting and directing in community theatre.