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Charter school: Racial mix an unknown quantity in enrollment formula

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

With just under a month left in its application period, the Coastal Montessori Charter School has applications from 83 of the 120 students it hopes to enroll in August. But the open enrollment period, which runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, is just the beginning of the process, which must have approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Georgetown County School District, which approved the charter school this summer, has operated under court-ordered desegregation since the 1970s and in 1997 signed a consent decree with the Justice Department to ensure it would comply with the mandates. The district has also commissioned a study of county population and enrollment that it hopes will lead to the lifting of federal oversight.

In the meantime, the Justice Department must sign off on any new schools. And the state charter school law requires that the school maintain the same racial mix as the district’s schools, plus or minus 10 percent.

Coastal Montessori has promoted the school to groups around the county, and organizers say their goal of taking the Montessori method into the public schools is to reach people who can’t afford tuition at the private Pawleys Island Montessori School. It plans to open with grades one through six.

The outreach effort, included in the charter school application, was highlighted by Michael Cafaro, the school district’s director of special projects, in a recent conference call with the district’s attorney and Thomas Falkinburg, a Justice Department attorney. “They were very impressed with that,” Cafaro said.

Falkinburg asked the same question as some school board members: Why isn’t the charter school located in Georgetown instead of Pawleys Island?

“I explained that the impetus was from the Waccamaw area,” Cafaro said.

The district’s enrollment is 50.5 percent white and 45.4 percent African-American. In the Waccamaw Neck schools, the mix is about 80 percent white, Cafaro said.

Enrolling minority students from the Waccamaw Neck in the charter school could reduce minority enrollment at the other schools, Carfaro noted. He said the Justice Department is also concerned about drawing white students from schools with black majorities.

“The enrollment process is extremely complicated,” said Kristin Bohan, project manager for Coastal Montessori and one of the school’s original organizers.

There is no information about race included in the applications that are being returned. “At this point, we have a name, a grade and what [attendance] zone they’re enrolled for,” Bohan said.

Also, the charter law allows the school to give priority for up to 20 percent of its enrollment for children of its founders and employees, and for siblings of students who are enrolled.

Montessori classrooms are made up of students of mixed ages. The charter school will have four lower elementary classes with 24 students each drawn from first through third grades. It will have one upper elementary class of 24 with students in grades four through six.

That means there are 32 places in grades one, two and three, and eight places for grades four, five and six.

Places will be allotted based on the order in which the student applications are received.

“If you think we’re going to be over-enrolled, you want to get your application in by Dec. 15,” Bohan said.

If there are more applicants than places in any grade, there will be a lottery, Bohan said. But she added, “it’s not even just a straight picking numbers out of a hat.”

A child could get picked in the lottery, but get bumped by a sibling of a child who is already accepted, she explained. Students who aren’t offered a place will be kept on a waiting list, Bohan said.

And, she added, all of that is done without consideration for a student’s race.

“It’s the luck of the draw,” Bohan said. “We’re not allowed to give priority based on race even though we’re being held to this very strict mandate.”

So although the open enrollment closes Dec. 15, the school will continue to accept applications, probably right up to the opening day, she said.

It’s possible the Justice Department will tell the school to admit black students who are on a waiting list. “My fear is that it’s going to do just the opposite,” Bohan said. “We’re trying to create a community that reflects the racial balance of the county.”

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