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Education: Charter school grows by 20 percent

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Eight months before it is scheduled to open, Coastal Montessori Charter School has seen its enrollment grow by 20 percent. The school received approval this week from the Georgetown County School Board to add a class of 24 “upper elementary” students.

The unanimous vote was greeted by cheers and applause from about 30 parents and prospective students, and tears from one woman whose granddaughter’s place in the school was due to be determined today in a lottery for grades four and six.

“I really see this as affirmation of what we are doing,” said Kristin Bohan, project manager for Coastal Montessori.

Charter schools receive public funding, but have their own governing boards. Coastal Montessori received approval last year from the state and the school district to open with 120 students in grades one through six. It received 145 applications during an open enrollment period that ended last month.

Mixed-age classes are one feature of Montessori schools, and the charter school planned to have four “lower elementary” classes of 24 students in grades one through three and a single upper elementary class. It had 101 applications for 96 places in early elementary classes, but was able to accept them all, Bohan said.

There were 44 applications for 24 places in the upper elementary class, so the charter school board scheduled a lottery for today at the Waccamaw Library to decide who would be admitted and who would go on a waiting list.

“We have a number of concerns about that,” Bohan told the school board. One was that state law allows charter schools to give preference to children of founders and staff and to siblings of students who are enrolled, up to 20 percent of its total enrollment.

“We have so many siblings,” Bohan said. “We can’t ensure that all siblings get in.”

The charter board decided to ask for permission to expand. Bohan made the pitch to the county school board Tuesday expecting that the board members would want to give the idea some thought. She spent most of the day preparing for the lottery.

But School Board Chairman Jim Dumm asked if any of the members had a concern about the expansion or objected making a decision. None did.

“I don’t have any issue with it,” Superintendent Randy Dozier told the board.

He noted that enrollment numbers are always tentative and even the school district isn’t certain of its numbers until it sees who shows up at school on opening day.

Bohan said afterward that the opening is also contingent on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, which has to review the school for compliance with court-ordered desegregation.

Board Member Arthur Lance asked about the number of minority students who applied. Bohan said she won’t know that for another couple of weeks.

Parents only included names and addresses in the applications for enrollment. They now have two weeks to fill out the actual enrollment forms.

Lance said he is eager to find out how much interest there is among African-American families. “Down the road, we might give you some competition” by creating Montessori charter schools elsewhere in the district, he said.

Many of the school’s organizers have children in the private Pawleys Island Montessori School. They said the goal of the charter school is to provide access to the “Montessori method” and its emphasis on development of the whole child to families that can’t afford private tuition.

The enrollment numbers so far are well beyond those who have connections with the private school, Bohan said. She has heard from parents who want to move to Waccamaw Neck from Horry County to enroll their children.

The school has 83 students from the Pawleys Island area, 41 from Murrells Inlet, 18 from Georgetown, two from Pleasant Hill and one from Andrews, Bohan said.

It will open in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. There are eight classrooms, so there will be enough space to accommodate the additional upper elementary class, Bohan said.

The school will continue to take applications until the start of school and maintain a waiting list in case some students who are enrolled don’t show up. Organizers are also continuing to hold events to build awareness of the charter school. The next one is planned for Jan. 19 at Teach My People in Pawleys Island.

“They are energized, passionate and committed to making this school happen,” said Michael Cafaro, the district’s director of special services. “I call it the Montessori Nation.”

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