A few months after Compass Academy's direction went south amid allegations of financial abuse from the founder, a retired couple that invested in the failed project hope they and other investors can complete construction on the existing site and open an entirely separate private school in the fall of 2014.
And they made it clear during an interview on Wednesday: Jerry and Sue Rowe said the new initiative will have no connection to Jay and Tracy Brooks, the couple that promoted Compass Academy as a new K-12 private facility. Jay Brooks was arrested and charged with securities fraud last month.
The Rowes have no intention of using the “Compass” name, they have decided to call the prospective school Belmont Academy – a tribute to Dogwood Stables' Cot Campbell after prize horse Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes in June.
The Rowes and other participating investors will seek their own bank financing and private investors, as well as parents interested in the new facility with a science and math emphasis.
About 80 percent of the construction is completed at the site, located on Toolebeck Road outside of Aiken. The new school initially would serve 4K through sixth grade and adding a grade each year as the students get older.
“We believed in this. We wanted to see a private school in Aiken,” said Jerry Rowe of the original project. “But Jay didn't do what he said he would do.”
The events of recent months led to negative comments about the original plan, Rowe said. Now, “we have to let the public know what we're doing is viable, and if they want to support us in this educational program.”
Their intent is to establish a Limited Liability Company (LLC) to determine who the investors are. The LLC could then move forward to talk with lending institutions. Rowe estimates that $2 million would be needed to get the school underway.
Cindy Hall, a retiree from the South Carolina public schools, had expected to become the headmaster at Compass Academy. She was disappointed how the game changed “from what was so honest and enriching to make a private school available for those folks that can afford it,” Hall said.
Now she's excited the Rowes welcomed her request to stay on and help make the new endeavor a reality. The earlier concept will remain, Hall said – the primary focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“This is an opportunity to raise the bar for every institution,” she said, adding that she has been contacted by industry, businesses and individuals about their interest in such a school.
Once completed, the facility could house a maximum of about 400 students. The investors intend to seek 100 children for the first year and increase that number each year as the students get older.
Hall and the Rowes believe Belmont Academy can offer an exceptional new opportunity for parents, including those who send their children to private schools outside of Aiken County.
The Rowes moved from New York to Aiken 13 years ago. They acknowledged they wanted to move earlier, but were concerned about the quality of the South Carolina school system.
“Our children are out of college, and we have no grandchildren,” Jerry said. “We will never use this school, but, to us, this is for a good cause.”
Still, they never anticipated their investment would lead them into direct efforts to open a new school. Rowe said Jay Brooks had approached them, asking for an investment to help build the school.
The end result “was shocking, to say the least,” Rowe said.
The investors as a group learned their funds had been frozen through the S.C. Attorney General's office.
“Once the state froze the funds, we organized with a chairman and co-chairman in March,” Rowe said. “We started contacting the investors and asked them how they felt with this. We explained our money was all on 1200 Toolebeck Road and we couldn't touch it, not in the Caribbean or on a yacht – no other places.”
From day one, Rowe said, the investors banded together.
While he and the other supporters knew the school concepts and the building, Hall said she can incorporate the technology and curriculum. Character development would be infused within the STEM concept.
Belmont Academy also would introduce the new Common Core academic standards – state-driven common standards that will be formally introduced in as many as 46 states in 2014-15.
The academy would call for all students to have iPads as a technology tool, along with computers and projectors in each classroom.
“That would end the need of buying textbooks or even staff a full library,” said Hall. “Each child has access to millions of books and their content.”
Teachers would get professional development for their classrooms and create their own curriculum, Hall said.
A survey about the proposal, located on the Aiken Standard website, Rowe said, can help determine if the investors can work with lenders and help raise the needed funds. They have to know if they will get the money in place and generate other support, as well.
“We would love to get something done by early fall,” Rowe said. “We could organize and purchase the school and go on to finish the construction. The sleepless nights are behind us.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.