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Schools: Hands-on learning will embrace high-tech building

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

To a charter school, cutting edge technology has appeal. To a Montessori school, it’s important that the child rather than the technology drives learning.

At Coastal Montessori Charter School, construction of a new facility will try to embrace both ideals.

“It’s a new school. You want to build it right,” said Stella Mercado, a charter board member. “This is an opportunity to be the best technology school in the district.”

She’s in a position to make that happen as the president and CEO of Mercom, the fast-growing tech firm based at Pawleys Island. The school bought 6.9 acres on Highway 17 between Hagley Estates and Allston Plantation this year. It is planning a 49,060-square-foot school for 256 students in grades one through eight. The project is funded by a $6 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency. Charter schools get public funding for operations, but not for facilities, so the Coastal Montessori board has to balance what’s spent on the building with what’s spent in the classroom.

“You guys are really lucky,” Mercado said at a meeting with staff, board members and architects last week. “You don’t have to invest a lot in hardware, it’s all cloud-based.”

What teachers want is high-speed Internet access to bring video and teleconferencing to their students. The charter school opened in 2012 in a wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It has access to the Georgetown County School District’s networked servers and a separate Internet access. Since she couldn’t access YouTube through the district, Sarah Wilson positioned her laptop near the door of her upper elementary (grades four through six) classroom to get a signal from the charter school’s wi-fi network. Even then the streaming video was unreliable.

“We needed a video once on how to tie a turban,” Antoinette Ursits, who teaches lower elementary (grades one through three), said. Having the bandwidth as well as a projector is important. Video conferencing will allow her students to interact with children around the world, she said.

Computers and tablets are needed, but less important.

“We encourage students to use pencil, paper, books first,” Wilson said. “Google uses no brain power. That’s not what elementary school is for.”

The state’s standardized tests are taken on computer, so keyboarding is a skill students need to master. But Kristin Bohan, a charter board member, said she didn’t want the school’s technology to be dictated by the tests. “Maria Montessori was a very practical person,” she said of the founder of the teaching method the charter school follows. Using technology to share with other schools would further her philosophy.

Coastal Montessori also wants to make sure that students aren’t passive users of technology, but understand how it works. That includes letting students see how the infrastructure is installed in the new building. “Programming is something we would love to get on board with,” said Nathalie Hunt, the school director.

Mercado agreed that’s important. “I want to interject IT into problem solving,” she said. “The jobs of the future are going to be problem solvers.”

The design of the school is nearing completion, said Steve Goggans, whose firm SGA Architecture is doing the work. “We’re thinking very residential in our building system,” he said.

That means a clapboard siding on a metal frame with drywall interior rather than masonry block walls, he said. The materials can be used because the school will have a fire sprinkler system.

The plan will help keep costs down and reflect “the whole aesthetic of the Montessori philosophy,” Goggans said.

Along with 12 classrooms, the building will have a media center and a “grand hall” that will serve as the cafeteria and auditorium.

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