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Education: Journey of nearly three years leads to charter school opening

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It started in December 2009, 33 months before Adir Grant and his sister Adara walked through the door on the first day of class at the Coastal Montessori Charter School.

“It all seems so long ago,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school board.

Clarissa Grant brought her two children from Georgetown, arriving at 7:30 a.m., an hour before the start of class. “They’re definitely excited,” she said.

Although Adir and Adara wore matching red T-shirts and khakis, one of the school’s uniform options, they have different learning styles. Their mother said she was attracted to the Montessori school because “they allow the child to learn in their own way.”

By 8:30 a.m., Adir, a sixth-grader, was sitting on the floor of Sarah Wilson’s upper-elementary classroom. “It’s good to sit on the floor,” he said. The other attractions of Montessori are the variety of materials and “they don’t time your work,” he added.

For Adara, a fifth-grader, the appeal is “to have new experiences and meet new people,” she said. At private school last year, she said students who struggled got help while the rest of the class waited. “We thought that wasn’t fair,” she said. “Here they help everybody.”

The buzz of excitement that came from children who gathered in the school’s multipurpose room to await the start of class dispersed as they were called to their classrooms. Doors closed and the freshly painted hallway and its newly buffed floor were silent.

“I haven’t figured out how it feels,” said Kristin Bohan. “Twenty years from now I’ll look back and say, Wow.”

A dozen parents with children at the private Pawleys Island Montessori School gathered in Bohan’s living room in December 2009 to discuss the idea of converting the school to a public charter school. The school that opened Wednesday in an empty wing at Waccamaw Middle School is different from what the organizers first imagined in several ways, but the key element remains: it provides access to the child-centered Montessori model without requiring private school tuition.

“There are so many kids who never dreamed they could have Montessori,” Bohan said.

Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own governing boards and are exempt from some state mandates. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District and is the first charter school in the county since the Harbor School in Georgetown closed in 2000 after two years in operation.

Bohan, a psychologist, led the planning committee that applied for and received state certification for the charter school. She was its project manager for several months until Lonnie Yancsurak was hired as director in April.

She spent most of 2010 researching the charter school options before making a pitch to the parents at the private Montessori school, where she served on the board. The charter would be a separate school, that would take the students in grades one through six. “And it could be so popular, your kid may not get in,” she added.

Despite that caveat, the private school parents supported the idea. Pawleys Island Montessori School continues to operate as a pre-school.

Coastal Montessori was approved by the state and the county school board in the summer of 2011 for 120 students. Enrollment began last October and ended with 145 students signed up. Rather than hold a lottery to decide who got in, the charter board got approval from the school district to expand.

There are now four lower-elementary classes, a blend of students in grades one through three, and two upper-elementary classes for grades four through six. There were 155 students enrolled, but Yancsurak, a veteran of charter schools in Ohio and California, said the actual size of the school would depend on who showed up Wednesday – and who stays. There are 25 students on a waiting list.

The final tally on Wednesday was 143, beating the odds for the typical charter school where 10 to 20 percent of the enrolled students never arrive. “A couple of parents said they had sick kids,” Yancsurak said.

There were moments when the opening seemed in doubt, at least to Bohan, who describes herself as the board’s designated worrier. One hurdle was the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve any new schools in the district for compliance with a desegregation order from the federal courts that dates to the 1970s. Half the district’s 18 schools don’t have a racial balance that complies with the federal requirement, and the district must show that its policies aren’t furthering segregation.

“Our biggest fear was the Justice Department,” Bohan said.

The agency questioned the decision to open the school in Pawleys Island, which is predominantly white, but finally gave its approval this summer for the school to open. The Justice Department will review the enrollment, teacher assignments and charter board composition over the next three years for compliance with the desegregation order.

In addition, the school proposes to start a preschool program at elementary schools outside Waccamaw Neck that will provide a gateway for black students to enter Coastal Montessori. The Justice Department will also review that program.

The other principal concern for the new school was money. Although it received a federal startup grant, the money was only available as a reimbursement. This spring, the school was told money for school supplies and fixtures promised for July wouldn’t be available until October. That would have kept the school from opening, Bohan said.

Her appeals to the state Department of Education, which administers the grant, finally reached the state superintendent, Mick Zais. The money arrived July 1. Zais will attend an opening ceremony at the charter school on Friday.

The school financed operations with a credit card and loans guaranteed by board members until it received its first allocation of state funds from the school district this month.

“Thank God we got our first check from the district so we could meet payroll,” Bohan said.

The school never missed a credit card payment or had to pay interest, she added.

After watching students arrive on Wednesday, Bohan decided she did know how she felt.

“Grateful,” she said. “Grateful to be an American, that we live in a country where you can have a choice.”

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