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Education: Charter school faces mid-year challenges

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Halfway through its first year, the county’s only charter school has plenty of money and plenty of students. But it is losing its director and didn’t receive a single application from African-American students for the coming year. The school’s board will have to address those issues while it negotiates for land and financing to build a permanent facility.

Coastal Montessori Charter School opened in August in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It receives public funding as part of the Georgetown County School District but has its own board and is exempt from some state regulations.

Lonnie Yancsurak, who moved from Los Angeles to become the school’s first director, announced last week he will step down at the end of the year. The decision came as a surprise to board members who had met with Yancsurak just days before as part of his performance review.

The review wasn’t part of his decision, Yancsurak said. He wants to pursue other interests in public education and his family wants to move to a more metropolitan area.

“These situations are always surprising,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school board. “I appreciate him telling us now.”

“I believe we are infinitely better prepared today than we were this time last year to choose a leader,” said Kristin Bohan, a charter board member and school founder. “This time last year, Coastal Montessori Charter School was still an idea. Now we have real classrooms filled with Montessori materials and beautiful children.”

The school opened with 147 students. It now has 144. Yancsurak, who also opened a charter school in Los Angeles, said he expected the school to lose more students. Its classes run from first through sixth grade and it will lose 10 sixth-graders in June. But 120 students have already sent in letters that they intend to return in the fall and there is still a week left in the notification period.

The school received 32 applications from first-grade students. (Montessori classrooms mix first- through third-graders and fourth- through sixth-graders.) Despite holding a series of meetings around the county for prospective students, no black students have applied. “Obviously we’re disappointed with that,” Yancsurak said.

The state charter school law requires schools to have a racial mix within 10 percent of the mix within the district as a whole, which is 50 percent black, or show it made a good-faith effort to achieve that mix. The Georgetown County School District also operates under supervision of the U.S. Department of Justice under the terms of court-ordered desegregation that dates to the 1970s. The Justice Department approved the charter school, but said it would watch the racial balance at the school.

The agency also approved Coastal Montessori’s plan to acquire 10 acres at the Prince George property from the University of South Carolina Development Foundation. The charter board has applied for a $5 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency to buy the land and build a permanent school.

The Justice Department had urged the school to look for a site in Georgetown in order to improve the racial balance. The charter board argued that the Prince George site will make the school accessible to the mostly white Waccamaw Neck students who are the core of its enrollment and to minority students from Georgetown.

“It’s very disappointing that we didn’t attract any African-American children to our first grade,” Bohan said. “We’ve had our enrollment cut-off, but we’re far from done attracting minority families.”

Yancsurak was at a celebration in Georgetown over the weekend for the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King. That led to a couple of meetings with pre-schools, he said.

“I don’t think I understood how much time it would take” to build the relationships to boost minority enrollment, he said.

The charter board has formed a recruitment committee to make those connections. Although it has letters of intent from first-graders, plus two more on a waiting list, he said it’s likely the makeup of the class will change before the new school year starts.

Transportation is another issue, particularly for first-grade children, he said. The school district offers transportation to the charter school on buses that already bring children from the Georgetown area to the Waccamaw Neck schools, but he said it would be better to have a bus just for the charter school. However, charters aren’t funded for transportation. “Location is absolutely a big thing now,” he said. “It makes it a more difficult decision for parents.”

However, the school now exists and has some success stories. “Those are the most powerful messages we can send,” Yancsurak said.

Director will leave school, but not education

Staff at the Coastal Montessori Charter School gather from time to time for a “community circle” to talk about things beyond the daily routine. Last week, the topic was pride.

As Lonnie Yancsurak listened to teachers talk about their pride in their school and their students, he realized, “the team has formed.”

“I took that as a sign. It’s time to move on,” he said.

Yancsurak will step down as director of the charter school at the end of the year. He’s 43 and about to finish his doctoral dissertation. His wife gave birth last month to their third child, a daughter who has two older brothers. “We’re more oriented toward a bigger city,” he said. “We like all the stuff that big cities have going on.”

He informed the charter school board and the staff last week because this is the time of year that principals are looking for new jobs. “Nothing’s going on behind the scenes. I feel like the school is moving in the right direction,” he said.

Yancsurak is an Ohio native and moved from Los Angeles to take charge at Coastal Montessori. He helped open a charter school in Los Angeles and said he remains committed to the charter movement.

But starting a school, he said, “is grueling.”

When he arrived at the vacant wing of Waccamaw Middle School where Coastal Montessori now holds classes, “there was just a desk and a wobbly chair,” he said. “It’s practically miraculous that we’ve come this far in seven months.”

Kristin Bohan, a board member and school founder, helped hire Yancsurak. “That position is an extremely difficult job. You’ve got to want to do it 80 hours a week and love it more than anything else,” she said.

Yancsurak plans to stay involved with public education and charters, perhaps teaching at a university or as a consultant. He said he also has an idea for an educational product in development.

The founding director’s job should probably be advertised as a one- or two-year job, he said. It’s much different from the process of managing a school.

Although Yancsurak had experience with charters, he was new to Montessori. “Leading a start-up public Montessori charter school is for someone who is borderline fanatical about offering Montessori education to children who’ve never had access to it,” Bohan said.

With a year of experience, the board also has a better idea of what skills the next director will need, she said.

“We are truly viewing this as an opportunity to find that rock star who will match, and just maybe even raise, the phenomenal level of passion our teachers bring to school,” she said.

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