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Education: Charter school looks at pilot program for youngest children

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A pre-school program in Georgetown will help boost diversity at the school district’s only charter school, according to a proposal that will be reviewed next week by the Georgetown County Board of Education.

“They’re always concerned about recruitment and diversity,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. “It needs some thought.”

Coastal Montessori Charter School wants to create a pilot program for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds at McDonald Elementary School. Under the Montessori model, classes contain students of different ages. Those in the primary class at McDonald would be eligible to enroll at Coastal Montessori, which plans to start construction this summer on a facility on Highway 17 south of Hagley. The charter school opened three years ago in a vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School.

“It’s about not being an island and just being our own little school,” said Kristin Bohan, founder of Coastal Montessori. “It’s about bringing Montessori to the community.”

A majority of the enrollment at McDonald Elementary is African-American. Two-thirds of the students qualify for free lunches. Coastal Montessori’s enrollment is mostly white and only 20 percent qualify for free lunches, a measure of family income.

The Georgetown County School District has been under federal oversight since the 1970s to ensure compliance with court-ordered desegregation. It has tried for several years to get the U.S. Justice Department to lift that oversight. The department had to review the location of the charter school campus, which the charter board said would help improve diversity by making it more accessible to low-income and minority students from the western part of the county.

If approved, the pilot program would be the first in the public schools for 3-year-olds. “The challenge is, there’s no 3-year-old funding,” Bohan said.

Charter schools are public schools with their own boards, but they receive funds from the state based on enrollment. The state funds pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low income families and kindergarten for all children. Other Montessori primary programs around the state absorb the cost of the 3-year-olds, Bohan said, and that’s what Coastal Montessori proposes.

The cost of a single class of 21 students is estimated at about $95,000 for the first year, which includes a teacher, a teaching assistant and supplies. The charter school proposes that the district fund about $15,000 in supplies and provide the classroom space at McDonald.

“I don’t know if it would be this year or next year,” Dozier said. “We’re pretty much through with the budget.”

Charter school board members also discussed the idea with the principal at McDonald, Miriam Daniels. “She was very receptive,” Bohan said. McDonald has an established pre-K program, which was initially funded through federal aid to schools with a large portion of low-income students.

However, Daniels has since taken over as the district director of special services. A new principal will be hired for the fall.

There are 36 public Montessori schools in South Carolina. They have 97 classes for primary students, Bohan said. “It’s best to be a Montessori student when you’re 3,” she said.

Coastal Montessori’s board discussed plans for a feeder program even as it began its program for grades one through six. The goal isn’t to secure a stream of applicants, Bohan said. The school already has a waiting list of 53 students for next year. It’s current enrollment is 180 students.

The primary program will provide parents in Georgetown with another option, she said.

Dozier sees that as one of the advantages of the proposal. “We like to offer choices,” he said.

Coastal Montessori plans to add middle school classes when it moves into its new facility. That and the primary program will require the county school board to approve a change in Coastal Montessori’s charter. Dozier said the Department of Justice will also need to review the changes.

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In the meanwhile, the school is awaiting approval of its building plans by the state Office of School Facilities. The plans will then need approval from the federal Rural Development agency, which is providing a $6.3 million loan to buy the land and build the school. Construction is expected to take 10 months. “If they can start clearing by August, we’re in good shape,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter board.

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