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Education: Parents pitch charter school to board

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A group of parents and educators plans to apply to the state this year to open a Montessori charter school in Pawleys Island. The school, which hopes to open in 2012, will be in addition to the private Pawleys Island Montessori School.

Charter schools receive operating funds through the local school district based on spending per pupil, though they are exempt from many state laws and regulations that govern public schools. There is no public money for facilities or for transportation.

A committee that now numbers 17 members started working on the charter school last year. It presented plans this week to the Georgetown County Board of Education, which must also approve the charter.

“We didn’t want to talk about it until we knew we could really do it,” said Kristin Bohan, who chairs the charter committee. She is a former board member at the private Montessori school and a psychologist who started the myTERMS program to help girls develop a healthy self-image.

The group has met with board members and district staff and with staff in the Office of Public School Choice in the state Department of Education.

“We hope the district will see this Montessori charter school as an opportunity to bring innovation and choice to the families they serve,” Bohan said. “We want to be one more thing that the district is doing well.”

The “Montessori Method” was developed by Maria Montessori in 1907 and emphasizes development of the “whole child” through academic, social, emotional and behavioral growth.

Converting the private Montessori school to a charter school isn’t an option, Bohan said. About 80 percent of its enrollment is in preschool, which the state charter program doesn’t fund. And state charter rules would require it to close for a year before reopening as a charter school.

She believes the schools can co-exist, and points out that there is no guarantee a private Montessori student would be accepted at the public charter school. If there are more applicants than spaces in a charter school, admission is through a lottery.

Coastal Montessori will take students in first through sixth grades. The committee isn’t sure how much demand there will be, but as it promotes the concept, it will encourage parents to sign a nonbinding letter of intent.

The size of the potential enrollment will determine the facility, and Bohan said a group of parents is willing to buy land in the Pawleys Island area, build the school and lease it to Coastal Montessori.

That is the same method used to build the private Montessori school, she noted.

Charter schools are required to have the same racial mix as their county’s public schools, or show that they made a good-faith effort to achieve that mix. Bohan said the lack of transportation funding will make that hard for a school located at Pawleys Island.

“We know that there’s a real limitation,” she said.

So the committee will take the approach that Coastal Montessori will be the first of several Montessori charter schools in the county, Bohan said. “We’re dreaming big,” she said.

That is also true in the area of teacher training. Most of the state’s 42 Montessori charter schools are in the Upstate, near universities that offer Montessori teacher training.

The Coastal Montessori committee has already talked with the dean of the education program at Coastal Carolina University about adding Montessori training. If that works out, Coastal Montessori could become a site for practice teaching, Bohan said.

Working with the school district is the key to success for a charter school, she said. Board members were receptive.

“I applaud your efforts,” said Teresa Bennani, whose three daughters attended the private Montessori school. “Montessori gave my children a very strong foundation.”

Board Member Johnny Wilson said he became familiar with Montessori charter schools while serving on the S.C. School Boards Association. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said.

Georgetown County had a charter school that closed in 2000 after operating for two years. The Harbor School for Arts and Sciences ran into financial trouble and the school board revoked its charter.

“That’s the taste everybody has of charter schools,” said Joe Isaac, who is helping with the Montessori charter. He is a former member of the state Board of Education and was principal at Georgetown and Waccamaw high schools.

But he said charter schools got a boost under the former state school superintendent, Jim Rex. “It’s a great thing,” Isaac said. “It allows flexibility and innovation.”

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