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Education: With funds and staff, charter school considers a pre-K program

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Coastal Montessori Charter School has its first funds and its first employee. And it has applications from 44 students who hope to be in class when the school opens in August 2012.

But organizers of the school haven’t stopped planning, and now hope to open a free Montessori preschool next year.

The school received word last week that it will get a $75,000 grant from the state Department of Education to fund planning between now and the start of school. It has budgeted for additional grants of $173,000 and $175,000 in its first two years of operation, but those awards, which come from federal funds, won’t be made year-by-year.

“This whole process has been one huge leap of faith, so I suppose the funding is just another area where we will jump in with both feet and hope for the best,” said Kristin Bohan, who until this week chaired the charter school board.

She was hired Monday as the project manager, who will oversee the startup. Bohan, a psychologist, applied for the job because the school received just two applications. The other finalist was a charter school veteran who lives in Atlanta. “She’s really a great candidate,” said board member Bo Bryan, but he pointed out that she doesn’t know much about Montessori schools.

Coastal Montessori was the idea of parents at the private Montessori School of Pawleys Island who wanted to see the concepts of self-directed, child-centered learning available to families that can’t afford private school tuition. As a charter, it will receive public funds, but have an independent board that will be responsible for making sure the school meets all state standards.

“Kristin has pretty much been the project manager since Day One,” said Bryan.

The 13-member board began meeting in Bohan’s home. It now meets in the conference room at the ReMax by the Sea real estate office in Litchfield, where 22 people packed in for this month’s meeting.

Bohan left the room while the board discussed offering her the $30,000 job. She wasn’t gone long. The vote was unanimous.

“It’s an honor,” Bohan said. “I can’t imagine wanting to do anything more than this.”

Rob Hovarth was elected to chairman. He said Bohan will continue to speak for the group, as she has done since

they began presenting plans to the Georgetown County School Board last year. The school district is the school’s sponsor.

The charter board agreed this week to accept the district’s offer to lease a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School for the first year. The charter will have first through sixth grades and will require a waiver from the state Office of School Facilities to put first-, second- and third-graders in classrooms without a bathroom.

Coastal Montessori planned to use private investors to fund its permanent home, but the board learned at a conference last month that it could be eligible for a state program that would allow it to issue bonds for a school building. “The obvious advantage of this is that then the school owns the building,” Bohan said.

That option would become available after a couple of years when the school establishes itself as a sound business. “Everything we’re doing now is going to be looked at eventually,” Bohan said.

While the charter board moves forward with plans for next year’s opening, including reviewing the 20 applications it has received for principal, members are also putting together plans for a preschool. The charter is starting at first grade because the state doesn’t fund preschool. But there is a growing push for improved preschool in Georgetown County.

“Nobody does preschool like Montessori,” Bohan said. “The ground has never been more fertile to grow some Montessori preschools.”

The charter board wants to be part of the discussion at the school district, but it believes that starting a free preschool could demonstrate the value of the Montessori method.

“I just believe in it so much,” said board member Heather Teems, a Montessori teacher who chairs the education committee.

Bohan said she has already talked with Teach My People, an after-school program, about using its building during the day. “We’re looking at trying to get that up and running for next year,” she said.

It would likely be done with volunteers, she added. “A lot still has to be worked out.”

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