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Alice Clark, a seventh-grader, shows younger students the way to their classroom on Day 1.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Coastal Montessori: A school that’s more like home

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Rob Horvath dropped his son Harrison off at school on Monday morning. Then he drove home. “I wanted to be a parent today,” he said.

But home isn’t just his house in Willbrook. For the chairman of the board at Coastal Montessori Charter School, home has also become the 27,000-square-foot facility that opened to students this week. “We wanted it to be like a home,” Horvath said. As students arrived for the first day of class, he was back to install a bicycle rack outside the front doors.

Many students and parents had already seen the new building, both during construction and over the weekend, when they helped staff move supplies from the wing at Waccamaw Middle School that the charter school has occupied since it started in 2012. It was new to Michael Winters, who arrived in Amy Williams’ lower elementary class with eyes popping. “Everything’s been moved around,” said Michael, a second-grader. “Everything’s different. Wow.”

The newness didn’t affect students in Shaye Heiskell’s lower elementary class. They went about their morning routine: putting jackets in cubbies, vacuuming, folding mats, starting their journal entries. “I feel like I’m walking in a dream,” said Johanna Wilson, the teaching assistant.

Colin Nalley helped put the book shelves together and unpack the books over the weekend. “There’s a really big closet over there that we didn’t have before,” the fourth-grader said. And there is a bathroom that’s shared between two classrooms, no more walks down the hall. And a projector fitted in the ceiling. “I never thought I’d say this, but it’s better than our old room,” Colin said.

Antoinette Ursits picked a piece of builder’s tape from the back of the door in her lower elementary classroom. Students arrived with plants she had sent home with them over the weekend. The Montessori method takes its name from Maria Montessori, a doctor and educator who developed its child-centered concept in Italy over 100 years ago. Having a school that feels more like a home furthers those ideals.

“This is our home,” Ursits said. “They will take care of this better than they do at home.”

The drywall is painted with beige latex. The bead board paneling behind built-in benches around the school is painted white. That was a topic of discussion, Horvath said. How will they keep it clean.

“You won’t have the pristineness that you have right now,” Ursits said. But that’s the point. “It’s not institutional.”

The middle school wing, now home to 19 seventh-graders, is divided into four classrooms separated by an open, high-ceilinged meeting place. Students arrived on Day 1 with their science projects. “We cut them no slack,” said Chad Rentz, one of three middle school teachers.

Meal service will start next week with food cooked at Waccamaw High. The middle school will develop a recycling and composting program for the cafeteria, which is one of the uses for the Grand Hall.

Tom Strong, another of the middle school teachers, played “Home” by Phillip Phillips. “Cause I’m going to make this place your home,” is the refrain. “I kid you not,” Strong said. “This space is amazing.”

Horvath stood watching. He ducked his head down to wipe away tears.

Abigail Alford said it was important to acknowledge the people who made the school possible. Annabelle Scully sent them thank-you notes. “Be sure you acknowledge them,” Strong said. “You are so, so lucky.”

Horvath later told Nathalie Hunt, the school director. He teared up at the memory. Three years of planning and delays went into the new building, what Colin Nalley called “our forever school.” “It feels like we’ve been in it forever,” Hunt said. It was only 8:15.

Weekend move gets school open Monday morning

In a taste of what is to come for schools around Georgetown County, Coastal Montessori Charter School students started class this week in a new building. “It’s like Christmas has come early,” said Kim Evans-Robey, the art teacher who spent the last three years with her materials packed on a cart that she rolled from room to room at Waccamaw Middle School. Now she has a room of her own.

Coastal Montessori opened in 2012 in a vacant wing of the middle school with 143 students in grades one through six. This year it added a seventh-grade class that will become the eighth-grade class next year.

“It’s so exciting after all these years,” said Antoinette Ursits, a lower elementary teacher who has been at Coastal Montessori since its founding. The youngest students in her class of first- through third-graders weren’t even born when a dozen parents at the private Montessori School of Pawleys Island met in December 2009 to plan for a public Montessori school. Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own boards.

The school bought 6.9 acres on Highway 17 between Hagley Estates and Allston Plantation in 2014 after getting a $6.9 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency. Construction began in October 2015. After starting this school year at Waccamaw Middle, Coastal Montessori packed up and moved over the weekend. Staff, students and parents all pitched in.

“It’s a tremendous achievement to come from an idea to a new school,” Georgetown County Superintendent Randy Dozier said. The weekend move was particularly ambitious. “Not many people would take on that challenge,” he said.

Voters in the county approved a $165 million bond referendum this month that will renovate and expand the other 18 schools in the district. Dozier expects the excitement of the charter school opening to be replicated around the county as other schools get a makeover. “It’s a nice draw for Georgetown County,” he said.

Bryson Tucker-Howard, a fourth-grader, was among the first students at the new school, arriving by bus from Georgetown at 7 a.m. “I think this school is amazing,” he said as he waited in the Grand Hall, a multi-purpose room with a vaulted ceiling. He sat on a folding chair, the only seating available until the cafeteria furniture arrives.

Abigail Alford, one of 19 seventh-graders, started at Coastal Montessori in grade three. She and the other middle school students guided younger students to their new classrooms. They were impressed with the way it looks, with wood floors and plaster board wall. Abigail enjoys the natural light, but said the best thing about Coastal Montessori is “we built our own school.”

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