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Education: Feeder program will boost racial mix at charter school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Coastal Montessori Charter School could become the most “racially representative” school on Waccamaw Neck once the county school district implements a plan to create a feeder program for 3- through 5-year-olds in schools with high minority enrollments, according to a plan outlined to the U.S. Department of Justice last week.

The charter school is scheduled to open at Pawleys Island in August for grades one through six. It requires approval from the Justice Department because the district is operating under a consent decree from the federal courts to desegregate its schools.

The charter school is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District although it has a separate governing board. The state charter school law requires the school to have the same racial mix as the district as a whole or show it made a good faith effort to achieve that mix.

The letter to the Justice Department says that the racial mix of the 171 students who have applied to Coastal Montessori is 17 percent black, nearly the same as Waccamaw Middle School, where the charter will occupy six classrooms for its first two years.

Of the African-American students who will attend the charter school, 41 percent are “crossing the bridge” to attend, David Duff, attorney for the district, said in his letter. There is also a trend of black children from the western portion of the county attending Waccamaw Elementary and Intermediate schools, he said.

“This phenomena is a strong argument for locating the charter school in Pawleys Island,” Duff told the Justice Department.

Coastal Montessori will amend its charter to include a primary program for younger children, Duff said. It is working with the school district to find elementary schools outside the Waccamaw Neck with high numbers of black students where the free program will be offered.

The district has been looking for ways to expand its pre-K programs to all-day classes to meet demand from working families.

Montessori primary classes would further integration around the district, Duff said. And children in those classes would have preference for the lower elementary classes (grades one through three) at Coastal Montessori.

“Strategic siting of the primary classes would help balance the scales to ensure a more representative number of African-American children entering the charter school,” Duff said. “The charter school may become the most racially representative school in the Waccamaw Neck.”

That would also help the school district’s efforts to have the consent degree lifted.

A mix of races and incomes among students is one of the goals set by the organizers of Coastal Montessori, Duff told the Justice Department.

Kristin Bohan, project manager for the charter school, said that goal was set even before the organizers became aware of the desegregation order.

“There are approaches to education that actually do level the playing field,” Bohan said. “And Montessori is one of them.”

The Justice Department raised questions about the location of the charter school and its impact on district finances in a letter late last year.

Duff said the charter and the district are committed to provide transportation for children who need it in order to attend Coastal Montessori, even though the state provides no funds for that purpose.

The charter school is currently planning to buy property on Petigru Drive that was the site of the Waccamaw Farms nursery. It will be acquired by investors and leased to the school, “assuming that the Justice Department has no objection to the location,” Duff said.

The school district estimates that $539,819 will shift from its budget to the charter school, less than 0.8 percent of the district operating budget, Duff said.

Bohan expects the Justice Department will want more information. “This is just the beginning of a long conversation,” she said.

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