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Education: Haley pitches charters while school pitches Montessori

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When Gov. Nikki Haley entered their class along with school and district staff, photographers and reporters, the students barely looked up. Some worked at desks. Some at tables. Others had work spread on the floor. The governor made the rounds to see what they were up to, kneeling next to those students sitting in chairs, sitting on the floor next to the others.

“I think this was the first Montessori we’ve been to,” she said afterward.

Haley was at Coastal Montessori Charter School last week to promote an education budget that is now in the state Senate and that includes increased funding for charter schools. For the school, it was a chance to distinguish itself from nearly 60 other charters in the state and focus on its place among five stand-alone public Montessori schools. “In a group with other charters, it’s hard to make her feel what Montessori is,” said Kristin Bohan, the founder of Coastal Montessori. “We want her to be able to say to people that Montessori is a great option.”

When Haley walked into Ally Boddicker’s room, her first question was what grade it was. Bohan explained that it was first- through third-grade, a “lower elementary” class. How many students in a class? Twenty four or 25, Bohan said. “The more the better,” she told the governor, who seemed to be looking for a lower teacher-student ratio. “We like big classes.”

In the child-centered model developed over 100 years ago by Maria Montessori, the older children help the younger ones. And they use a wide range of physical objects in their learning.

“As I was talking to them, I was so impressed just to watch those first-, second- and third-graders learning together and playing on the floor together,” Haley said to an assembly that included families and Georgetown County School District officials. “The way they cooperated with each other you couldn’t tell who were first-graders and who were third-graders, but you could tell they were learning.”

And they were listening when the governor spoke, picking up on her comment about playing. “They probably looked like games,” said Amelia Sargent, one of Boddicker’s students. “The stamp game looks like a game,” said Danni Maxwell, her classmate.

The students agreed there was no playing going on when the governor was in the room. Perhaps Haley got that idea “because they enjoy their work so much,” Lesley Byrne-Steedly, the assistant teacher, said. She also pointed out that the reason the students didn’t seem to take notice of the crowd of visitors was that “the adult is not the center of attention; the work is.”

As Haley walked to the assembly, she talked with Amy Miller, one of the founding board members of Coastal Montessori, about the school’s methods and about its parent involvement. Bohan invited Haley to visit last fall when she took part in a meeting between the governor and charter school representatives.

“I have heard so much about this school that I did want to see it and I have seen something that has made me incredibly proud,” Haley told the assembly. “I’ve also seen something that reminds me of the importance of charter schools.”

Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own governing boards and are exempt from some state regulations. Coastal Montessori is sponsored by the Georgetown County School District.

“The beautiful part for me is to come and see how well the charter school works with the school district. This is a massive compliment to both sides that understand that this is not about a competition,” Haley said. “This is about a partnership for our kids.”

Haley’s education budget includes an extra $350 per student for charter schools. She also included $4 million for a capital fund previously created by the legislature but left empty in past budget cycles. Unlike other public schools, charters have to raise their own money for capital projects. Also, they don’t receive public funds for transportation.

Charter schools don’t receive funds for kindergarten or pre-K students. Coastal Montessori would like to start a pre-school program to help attract more students from the western part of Georgetown County. Haley said after the assembly that she wouldn’t object to funding for younger children, but that she would rely on the board of the state’s Public Charter School District to make that recommendation. “They want people to look at charter schools and be proud of them,” she said. “So I think they’re taking it a step at a time. I will meet with them again this summer to find out what the next step is.”

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