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Education: Montessori charter school will hold student lottery

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A lottery will be held next month for some students seeking a place in the Coastal Montessori Charter School that will open at Pawleys Island in August.

The school plans to have 120 students in grades one through six. It had 119 applications for enrollment in advance of today’s deadline. However, the applicants are not distributed evenly across the grade levels.

Montessori classes include a mix of ages. The charter school plans three lower elementary classes of 24 students, with each having eight students from first, second and third grade. It plans one upper elementary class with eight students apiece from grades four, five and six.

There are already more than eight fourth-grade applications and more than 24 for first-graders.

The lottery will be held Jan. 5 at 10 a.m. at the Waccamaw Library.

Organizers initially said they hoped to avoid a lottery, but Mary Carmichael, director of the Public Charter School Alliance, told the charter board this week, “that’s healthy.”

“You need a healthy waiting list,” she said.

The nonprofit alliance helps charter schools across the state. Charters receive public funding but have their own governing boards. Though they must meet state education standards, they are exempt from some regulations.

Between 10 and 20 percent of applicants don’t show up on the first day of school, Carmichael said, adding that the figure for new schools is at the higher end of that range.

Coastal Montessori started taking applications in October. The school will open in a vacant classroom wing at Waccamaw Middle School, where about 50 people attended an open house earlier this month.

Those who apply by the deadline are guaranteed a place if the number of applicants is less than or equal to the number of places in their grade. The school will continue taking applications up until the opening day, and once the places are filled, new applicants will go on a waiting list in the order that they apply.

Where the number of students exceeds the available places, all the students who apply by the deadline go into a lottery. The charter school board should know by early next week which grades will require a lottery.

The name of the applicants will be placed in sealed envelopes that will go into a clear plastic bin. They will be shuffled and a board member will draw envelopes one at a time and read the names. Two other board members will record the names on separate lists. A video recording will be made of the process.

The drawing isn’t the final step, however.

State law allows charter schools to give priority for up to 20 percent of their places to children of organizers, board members and staff, and for siblings of students who are enrolled. “A child may get pulled Number 20,” Carmichael explained, using the example of 24 places in the lower elementary grades at Coastal Montessori. “By the time priority students and siblings are included, they may be on the waiting list.”

Some grades, such as second and sixth, are low, said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school board. He suggested the school could reallocate places in the classes to accommodate the actual applicants.

But Carmichael said it’s important to have solid numbers so the school can begin hiring teachers. “You’re going from your assumptions to reality at this point,” she said.

Another factor for Coastal Montessori, which is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District, is that the district is under a federal court order to ensure schools aren’t racially segregated. The U.S. Justice Department must approve the charter school.

The school must have a racial mix within 10 percent of the district-wide mix – 50 percent white, 45 percent African-American – or show that it made a good-faith effort to achieve that goal. Coastal Montessori organizers have held meetings around the county and worked with preschools and churches to recruit black students.

Carmichael believes that the charter school’s efforts will satisfy the Justice Department, but said that isn’t guaranteed. Nor is it possible to say when the department will make a decision on the school. “The Justice Department doesn’t follow the school calendar,” she said.

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