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Education: Justice Department approves charter school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The U.S. Justice Department has cleared the way for a charter school to open in the Pawleys Island area next month, but the agency says it will monitor enrollment and staffing to make sure the school doesn’t diminish racial desegregation in the county schools.

“The district may move forward with the opening of the charter school, subject to the reporting requirements,” Thomas Falkinburg, an attorney in the Civil Rights division, told the school district in a letter last month.

The Georgetown County School District is operating under a 1997 consent decree from the federal courts to fulfill the goals of court-ordered desegregation from the 1970s. The Coastal Montessori Charter School received state and district approval last year. It is sponsored by the district and receives public funds, but it has its own board and is free from many state school regulations.

The district notified the Justice Department last year that it had approved the charter. It received a list of questions about the racial composition of the school from Falkinburg in December. The district replied in February with a proposal for a feeder system for pre-school students that would help bring more black students to the charter school.

Four months later, the district got its reply, less than two months before the start of the school year.

“I don’t really anticipate that it’s the last set of questions,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “It’s frustrating.”

Much of the information won’t be available until the school opens and the students show up. The Justice Department also wants information about the racial makeup of staff and the school’s governing board. The current board is made up of the school’s organizers. State law requires the election of a new board once the school opens.

Coastal Montessori plans to open with 148 students in grades one through six. It will occupy a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School.

Falkinburg noted that “not surprisingly” the racial mix of the students who were signed up in February for the charter school mirrors that of the middle school’s attendance zone. And the racial mix at Waccamaw Middle “significantly diverges from the district-wide racial composition,” he said.

In the district, 45.3 percent of students are black. At the middle school, 16.9 percent of the students are black. That difference means, “by appropriate legal standards, a failure to satisfy requirements for desegregation,” according to Falkinburg.

The charter organizers have said their goal was to make the Montessori method of teaching available to a wider range of students. Most were involved with the private Pawleys Island Montessori School, which is why the initial enrollment skewed toward students from Waccamaw Neck.

The school has $25,000 in its $1.2 million budget for transportation and the school district has also said it will be able to help make sure any student who wants to attend the charter school has a way to get there.

But Falkinburg said the most likely source of minority students will be from three elementary schools in Georgetown. “Among those three schools, two are already reasonably well integrated and moving students to the charter school may disrupt that balance,” he wrote.

Creating a Montessori primary-school program in predominantly black areas that would give students preference at the charter school also raises problems. “We are concerned that the transfer of very young students after only one or two years at a local ‘satellite’ elementary feeder school to this charter school will not prove to be an attractive alternative to many families,” Falkinburg said.

Waccamaw Middle is planned to be the site of Coastal Montessori for two years until it can build its own facility. “It should take steps to ensure that the placement of the school does not impede the desegregation process,” Falkinburg said.

The school district has also asked to have the desegregation order lifted, giving it “unitary status” and removing Justice Department oversight.

Falkinburg asked for more information from the district before making that decision. He wants the district to explain how its “school choice” program, which allows students to transfer from schools that don’t meet federal standards for improvement, impacts integration. He also wants details of staffing, bus routes, gifted and talented programs and discipline, all with breakdowns by race. The district has until July 30 to respond.

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