Family forms the foundation of Horse Creek Academy, and the charter school now has rock-solid proof.

The school's new spirit rock – all 4,520 pounds – greets students, parents, teachers and visitors at the entrance on Toolebeck Road southeast of Aiken. People can rent the spirit rock, which came from Vulcan Materials in Columbia, and paint messages on it to spotlight student and school successes.

“We just want to be a family here,” said Dr. Ann Marie Taylor, the school's new executive director. “We know the school experience is more than just test scores. We know it's about relationships and building better humans, and one of the ways we do that is through our spirit rock.”

The spirit rock's first message honors and celebrates Sara Shealy, the school's nurse, who is battling cancer, Taylor said. "Your fight is our fight," the message reads.

“She is very beloved,” she said.

An educator for almost 20 years, Taylor, who started June 1 after Dr. Frank Roberson retired, came from the special education classroom and was the 2008 South Carolina Teacher of the Year, the first special education teacher to receive the award. She worked in the Aiken County Public Schools' district office for one year and was the special education director in Edgefield County six years.

“I've had lots of different roles. This is my fist official role as a building leader,” Taylor said.

Taylor adopted a shared leadership model this year at Horse Creek that allows teachers and administrators to make decisions together.

Last year, Taylor did a study through the Palmetto State Teachers Association that looked at why teachers stay in the classroom, why they leave and what they need from leadership.

“Overwhelmingly, they stay because of the kids,” Taylor said. “No. 2, why do you leave? Overwhelmingly, it was administrators. They didn't feel supported. No. 3, what did they want from their administrators? They wanted to be heard; they wanted to be listened to; and they wanted to be able to trust their leaders.”

Under the shared leadership model, administrators at Horse Creek Academy teach every day, and as a certified special education teacher, Taylor works one-on-one with students.

“No. 1, I love it. It fills me up. No. 2, teachers want trust, and if teaches want to trust their administrators, we need to do what they're doing,” Taylor said. “They need to see that I will do anything that anyone else does in this building, whether it's cleaning toilets or emptying the trash or teaching.

“There's not some big disparity between the importance of them and me. In fact, they're more important because they're with kids every single day.”

Taylor also implemented teacher-led professional development.

“We don't always have to send teachers somewhere else. We have great things happening here,” she said.

Taylor also introduced a restorative justice model for discipline. The model brings together students who have caused or experienced a behavior problem or disrespected other students, teachers or school property with teachers and administrators to talk about the behavior and make commitments to restore relationships.

It's a different approach to discipline, Taylor said.

“At many schools when someone gets in trouble, they get put out. There's a little bit of discussion about why, but rarely is there a way to make it better. Rarely do you mend relationships,” she said. “You typically have a suspension or some kind of consequence. Then they come back, and you move on.”

Using restorative justice, teachers and administrators meet with students to talk about what happened, how they can make it right and how they can win back respect and make relationships better.

“We ask the kids 'How can we make this right?,' and we try to put some of the ownership on them,” Taylor said.

Early in the school year, Taylor with other teachers and administrators had a restorative conversation with a student who had disrespected a teacher.

Through the process, the student suggested he could start to earn back his teacher's and classmates' trust and respect by apologizing to them.

“I said those sounds like great ideas. You have recess right now. Do you have time?” Taylor said. “He said 'yes ma'am,' and he got up and did it. Before, we would have put him out, not talked about it much. He'd come back. That relationship with his teacher is not restored, and then we'd have the same problem over again.

“I don't have real data to say this is working yet because it's brand new, but from a common sense standpoint, I've got to believe this is going to make a difference for our kids.”

A restorative justice conversation made a difference for a student who recently was shoved in the hall by two other students.

“It helps solve the problem so it doesn't happen again,” he said.

Horse Creek Academy has 563 students – “Give or take,” Taylor said – in pre-K through eighth grade and 80 students on its waiting list. Taylor said she plans to open a fourth grade and “possibly another class next year. The school is chartered through Aiken County Public Schools.

“Soon we'll be posting openings,” Taylor said. “Eventually, I'd like to grow on this campus. Our families really want a pre-K through 12th-grade experience because it's nice to have all your kids in one space.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.