Even before Patti Strom could begin a dedication ceremony for the new Horse Creek Academy, her voice broke. The executive director needed a minute or so to compose herself.


After 14 years as Midland Valley Prep, the public charter school has a new name, a new facility and an anticipated enrollment of 345 students – almost doubling the students from 2013-14.


The ceremony brought dozens of parents and children to the school, which will continue to serve students in grades 5-K to eighth grade. The academy will start as scheduled on Monday, but some work remains – such as the gym completion.


“We have a new home together as we embark on our new journey,” Strom said. “It's important to remember that our students' education will come first.”


The academy's very existence emerged from an unlikely set of circumstances. In 2012, Aiken residents Jay and Tracy Brooks announced plans to build a private K-12 school called Compass Academy. Construction started at a site on Toolebeck Road in Aiken, but was later abandoned after Jay Brooks was arrested and charged with securities fraud, as well as other charges. He currently is in jail.


Located on the Aiken-Augusta Highway, Midland Valley Prep had been limited from its 2002 start in its small space and its mostly mobile buildings. Earlier this year, the Toolebeck property became available, and the school was able to arrange the funding. Construction to complete the 53,000 square-foot building began in March.


The poor conditions at the older facility led parent Dina Tucker to consider moving her children. Those concerns soon evaporated as the new venture took hold. At the ceremony, Tucker happily joined the tour.


“I'm so excited about being here,” she said. “I love it.”


Strom expressed her gratitude to contractor Jeff Hudson and also the teachers, who have devoted their time over the summer to help get the school ready, she said.


“The purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts,” Strom said to the parents and other guests. “It is to teach them to think for themselves. We would like to thank you for choosing Horse Creek as your school of choice.”


As a public charter school, Horse Creek has a connection to the Aiken County School District – including an ongoing requirement to get formal authorization from the School Board to operate.


The District also collects “pass-through” state funds for the charter school and provides direct services for special education students. However, Horse Creek Academy has its own board of directors that manages its day-to-day operations. Parent Charles Lowe joined the board of directors two years ago and is currently the president.


“I've tried to put this into words,” he said. “It's really surreal, and I couldn't be happier for Patti and the staff. They really deserve this.”


The teachers include veterans and others in their first year. Sharon Ursy, a recent USC Aiken graduate, knows Strom well. Ursy is her former student during Strom's long career as a Jefferson Elementary School first-grade teacher.


Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.