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Education: Charter school may benefit as district tries to lift desegregation order

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

With approvals in hand from the state and Georgetown County School Board, the U.S. Department of Justice will now review plans for the Coastal Montessori Charter School to see if it complies with the terms of a desegregation order that dates to the 1970s.

The charter school for grades one through six that plans to open in the Pawleys Island area with 120 students in August 2012 received approval from the school board this week. The board’s decision is contingent on Justice Department review, as well as the school securing a building and contracts for required services.

The school board will also petition the Justice Department to lift the court order and a 1997 consent decree that outlined steps the district must take to stay in compliance. A similar petition three years ago led to the district increasing transportation for students to move between schools within the county as a way to increase diversity.

“That’s very expensive,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “They have a new set of attorneys” at the Justice Department. “So we’ll see.”

Approval from the school board follows state approval last month. The Coastal Montessori planning committee will now apply to the state for a “planning and implementation” grant that will allow it to hire consultants and a head teacher and secure facilities, said Kristin Bohan, who chairs the committee.

The grant is estimated at around $175,000 a year for three years, although Bohan said they wouldn’t know the exact figure until the funds are approved.

The charter school will receive state funds at the same rate per pupil as other schools in the district. Its first-year budget is $1.1 million, with $881,000 coming from the state.

The board vote was 7-0, with members raising questions about how the school will deal with special-needs students, discipline, meals and diversity.

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm also asked how Montessori students fare when they move into public schools.

Bohan said she could provide data from the state, but “ancedotally, it’s not unusual for those students to skip a grade.”

Montessori schools group children in multi-age classes. The lower elementary class will have grades one through three. The upper elementary will have grades four through six.

Teachers work with individual students or small groups. They don’t lecture.

The charter school will meet the same standards as other public schools, but it can follow its own methods, such as self-directed learning, one of the hallmarks of Montessori education.

Coastal Montessori has three goals: reduce the achievement gap between students based on race and income; raise the number of students who read at grade level by the end of third grade; and develop life skills among students.

“You have to show the district that you bring something new to the table,” Bohan said.

Her own journey of discovery began four years ago when she started looking for a pre-school for her oldest child, then 2.

She eventually chaired the board at the private Montessori School of Pawleys Island.

“As wonderful as Montessori was, it was very exclusive, and in our community it was also very homogenous,” Bohan said.

That led parents to start planning for a Montessori charter school that would be open to all students.

The private school will continue, though its enrollment is weighted toward pre-school and kindergarten.

Organizers hope the charter school will eventually include middle and high school grades.

The state charter school law requires that the school maintain the same racial mix as the district at large, or show that it has made a good-faith effort to meet that mix.

The district enrollment is 50 percent white and 45 percent African-American.

Coastal Montessori’s goal is to have 35 to 55 percent black students. It has letters of interest from parents of 115 students, Bohan said.

Organizers purposely omitted information about race from the letters, so they can’t say what the mix would be based on current interest.

Although they held meetings around the county to promote the charter school, Bohan said most of the interest came from parents on Waccamaw Neck.

Board Member Arthur Lance said he supports the charter school, but noted it will end up serving an area where the schools already perform better than others in the county.

“I wish there would be some way down the road,” he said, pausing. “Maybe you could move closer” to the western part of the county.

“Consider trying to make as big an impact on the county as possible,” Lance told Bohan.

To comply with the desegregation order and the 1997 consent decree, Coastal Montessori will try to hire minorities on its staff and promote the school in the black community. It will also create a racial diversity commitee.

“Montessori is all about multiculturalism and diversity,” Bohan said.

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