HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Ashlea Sovetts credits Horry County’s Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology for shaping her future

“It was probably one of the greatest decisions I ever made, going to that school, because it directed the trajectory of my life and my career by being a dance major at my school,” she said. 

After being a part of the school’s dance program, she went on to study it in college. A few years later, she learned the school eliminated its dance major.

“That was crushing to me, because I knew how much of a benefit I had as a student, and I was like, there needs to be a school like this, because I know this is something that can help students who maybe don’t fit into the preselected high school setting they have now,” she said. 

Now, she’s hoping to bring that option back. 

Sovetts — who has made a career in the dance field —  is the charter committee president for the Grand Strand Charter Arts High School, which aims to open in the fall of 2023 in Horry County. The school submitted an application this year to the South Carolina Department of Education, but withdrew it due to the pandemic. Sovetts said another application will be submitted by February of next year. 

In order to be approved, potential public charter schools must show that there’s a need and support for the school within a community, give an overview of the school’s educational program and explain how it differs from traditional district schools.

Bringing a public arts-focused school to the area, Sovetts said, will positively impact the community. She points to flourishing areas such as Charleston and Greenville, which have a robust arts community.

A strong arts scene, she said, is lacking in Myrtle Beach.

“You have to leave our community to be able to get that arts culture, and with the school, with the model…there would be opportunities each semester for the arts majors to hold their own exhibits,” she said. 

Every semester would have two art exhibits, along with theatre shows and music performances. The school would focus on the performing arts, with students splitting their school time between academic and artistic classes. 

The school would include the ninth through twelfth grades during its first year of operation, according to the application that was submitted this year. It was projected to have an enrollment of up to 350 students its first year, with a capacity for 600 students upon full enrollment. 

Originally proposed to open in fall 2022, the application notes that more than 14 students said they’d bypass their graduation year for the chance to attend a unique school. According to the application, there were 86 high school students interested in attending.

Sovetts said those numbers came from online and social media recruitment since the pandemic meant the proposed school wasn’t able to meet with arts groups to generate more interest. It’s also expected that more students would sign on if the school is approved.

The organizing board plans to meet with more groups in person, and Sovetts said one of the reasons the application was pulled from consideration this year was to give the group the chance to improve upon it and create more interest.

“I think this time with COVID has given us time to reflect and reform and strengthen and really understand what it is we really need to focus our priorities on,” she said. 

The school plans to have more than 110 artistic courses and 40 fully-developed academic courses, according to its application. It has allocated money to invite arts professionals to be visiting teachers and will provide a career planning course for each artistic major. All academic teachers will also have backgrounds in the arts. 

There will be 20 students for each academic class, and class sizes for artistic courses will vary from several to up to 25 students. 

The school will have formal auditions, but acceptance won’t be based on them. Instead, the auditions will be used to place students within their performing arts majors, according to the application. A random lottery process will be used if more students apply than there is room for, with preference being given to students in Horry County Schools, siblings of current students, children of employees, and the children of parents or guardians who have helped create the school. 

The location of the potential school hasn’t been determined. Sovetts said the organizing committee is looking to convert an existing building in a central Horry County area located near a major highway. The application for the school notes that it aims to be in Little River, although Sovetts said it is looking for a more central location in Myrtle Beach.

But with a theatre needed, along with dance studios that will need specialized floors, costs for the school may quickly add up. As a public charter school, the state will provide funding based on headcount, and Sovetts said the hope is that the school can apply for more money and recruit donors. When the school potentially opens, she said the school will have features like a black box theater and dance studios, but will have to add extras like a high-quality sound system and better lighting later. 

Other charter schools have delayed their application processes due to the pandemic, all while public interest in the alternative educational models has soared, according to Carol Aust, the executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina.

There are  more than 80 public charter schools in the state, and enrollment jumped by about 25% from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 academic year. Aust attributes that to the schools’ different models, including ones that have been virtual since the beginning.

“What we saw was charters were able to shift gears quicker to meet the needs of their parents and their students,” Aust said.

She said they were also able to offer in-person learning earlier. She said the pandemic led to more parents researching different options.

“What I’ve seen or heard is that I think people started to realize that charter schools are public schools and that is a choice available to them,” Aust said.