When Kate Frain first heard about the University School of the Lowcountry, it existed only in the mind of founder and school head Jason Kreutner.
"When I started having information sessions, I didn't even have a school to show people," says Kreutner.
Kate, then 10, was a fifth-grader at a private school, and her parents, Amy and Bryan Frain, were checking out the options for their oldest child as she entered middle school.
"A lot of people knew we were looking for something different," says Amy Frain.
There were several options available: the neighborhood public school, magnet public schools, private schools, home-school and even virtual school.
"There are so many options that exist now that did not exist as recently as 20 years ago," Kreutner says. "(Choosing a school) can be bewildering and anxiety-inducing. But when a school exists or emerges that is the right fit for your child, then the results are amazing."
Two of Frain's friends on the board of USL suggested that she take a closer look, so she and her daughter went to an info session.
"Kate had brought a legal pad with her and was taking notes," says Frain. "At the end, she wrote in capital letters, 'I want to go to this school.' "
Frain was as enthusiastic as her daughter.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," she says.
The right fit
The Frains always knew their oldest child was "very bright and curious."
The daughter of a cardiac electrophysiologist dad and stay-at-home mom, she "struggled to find relevance in the material she was learning," Frain wrote in a testimonial letter for USL. "She had little interest in the constant repetition and then exact regurgitation of facts. She was frequently frustrated with the monotony of the classroom routine -- the top-down approach of 'teacher lectures-student listens.' She felt very left out of her own education, powerless and bored by it all."
Although the Frains always tried to spark a love of learning in Kate, Frain says, "I can't take tons of credit. I think she came out prewired."
Kate, who will be 14 Sunday, and her siblings, Lily, 11, and Jack, 9, always have been encouraged to read. They make weekly treks to the library and watch very little TV.
"We always tried to offer them a wide base," Frain says. "We operate on the premise that no knowledge is bad. If they ask a question, we try to answer it."
So as the family looked for a school that would challenge Kate, they liked the way USL looked on paper, with plans to combine a challenging curriculum with weekly "Learning Outside the Classroom" experiences.
"I think not being from here opened us up to making the leap," says Frain.
The family also has lived in New Orleans and Providence, R.I. "We weren't afraid to make changes and didn't feel like we had to stay somewhere just because. We thought, 'Why not give it a shot?' We can always go back. It breaks my heart when kids are not happy where they are, but yet there is a failure to switch schools. I don't believe that all schools are right for every child."
Even though Frain felt ready to make the leap, at the time, USL not only had no physical school building, but it also had no student body.
"We had a deadline at her other school that we either had to meet or not meet," Frain says. "I finally said to Jason, 'We are going to release her from her other school. Will you go with just one student? We'll commit if you'll promise.' "
Kreutner promised, and with a student body of one, was ready to proceed.
So was Kate.
"I was fine with the idea of schooling alone," she says.
But she didn't have to. By the end of that school year, three more students had signed up, and during the summer, another three enrolled. In August 2007, USL opened as an independent school in rented rooms in a Sunday school wing at Mount Pleasant's Hibben United Methodist Church.
"It says a lot about people and what they are looking for for their kids that they are willing to commit to a new school," Kreutner says.
All of the other students were a grade ahead of Kate. Five of them were in the school's six-member 2009 graduating class.
Currently, there are two eighth-graders, Kate and Sierra Zardus, who started at USL this school year.
"Kate has been instrumental in shaping the school and guiding its younger members," Kreutner says. "She is the last connection to the opening of the school."
But she's not the Frain family's last connection to the school. In its second year, USL added the fourth and fifth grades, and Kate's younger sister, Lily, started as a fifth-grader. This year, the new third-grade class includes their brother, Jack.
At the school, math and foreign language are based on ability. Kate is taking geometry, Latin 2 and a self-study class she describes as Spanish "2 1/2 -- somewhere between Spanish 2 and Spanish 3."
Humanities and science are on a yearly cycle. This year, the students are studying world history and Earth science.
Kate also takes a leadership class led by Kreutner and participates in a writing program.
Because of its small size, students are able to go on weekly field trips to enhance the school's philosophy of "learning by doing and seeing." During her three years, Kate went on more than 80 outings. She says her favorite was a trip to Parris Island, where students toured areas of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot not normally seen by the public and watched a graduation.
As she prepares for her own graduation, Kate said she can't think of anything she missed by going to such a small school, but she can come up with plenty of advantages, such as the opportunity to mentor and be mentored and the familial atmosphere.
"The students are all very protective and proud of the school," Kreutner says. "And to think, three years ago it didn't even exist."
The school has continued to grow every year, while still renting space from the church. Enrollment next year is expected to be 35 to 45 students, Kreutner says.
Because high school grades won't be added until 2011-12, Kate and her classmate are heading to Academic Magnet High School next year. Kate will enter the ninth grade with five high school credits.
Her mother is OK with the switch to a public school with 600 students. "I believe Kate is ready for a big high school experience," Frain says. "We are excited about it."
Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713 or firstname.lastname@example.org.