A unique partnership developing between the Charleston County School Board and one of the school district’s highest-achieving charter schools could increase the quality and quantity of the county’s Montessori programs.

The deal would allow East Cooper Montessori Charter School to expand into the former Laing Middle School building, and the school would help train and mentor Montessori educators across the district.

Still, the arrangement has raised questions by at least one principal about equity and why the Mount Pleasant charter school would receive use of a building when others haven’t been provided that same opportunity.

“I just wonder how it is that we’re not at the negotiation table at this time,” said Cecelia Gordon Rogers, principal of downtown Charleston Development Academy, a charter school that mostly serves high-poverty students who live in public housing. Rogers’ school has outgrown its building and is trying to raise money for a new one.

“We have the land. We need the district to help us do something further on the peninsula; we’re definitely a shining star,” she said. “It’s perplexing, particularly when we are begging.”

The district’s partnership with East Cooper Montessori Charter came from both parties’ desire to grow Montessori programs. Montessori is a teaching philosophy that encourages students to work independently; students don’t have desks and do more individual, hands-on lessons.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley has a goal of offering similar programs in each of the county’s four geographic zones, and Montessori is one of those options.

Although the number of local public Montessori classes has been growing, more than 500 Charleston County students were on waiting lists for Montessori programs this past school year. From a national perspective, South Carolina is a leader in its percentage of public Montessori options.

To satisfy the demand, Charleston school leaders are developing new programs. In Mount Pleasant, they could have started from scratch or collaborated with East Cooper Montessori Charter. The school has spent 10 years perfecting and refining its Montessori program, and Principal Jody Swanigan said the partnership is cost-effective for the district and provides an excellent-rated school for students from Day 1.

“This is a successful model that should be reproduced,” she said.

Making a deal

Charter schools operate more like private schools in that they are independent of district mandates, but they receive public money, are accountable to state and federal laws and are free.

The developing deal with East Cooper Montessori Charter School raised some school board members’ red flags because of the potential precedent it would set.

“The perception may be if you ask for a school, we’ll somehow be able to find you a building,” school board member Michael Miller told his colleagues. “I’m very skeptical of creating this door that we may not be able to close. I’m very cautious about how we’re moving forward and how it’s perceived in the public.”

Still, Miller and the rest of the school board signed off on a plan that will enable the school to move into the former Laing Middle building in the fall of 2014. The school eventually would double its enrollment, and it is open to any county student.

No contract has been signed, and many details have yet to be determined. But McGinley made it clear this wasn’t simply giving away a school building.

“This is an exchange,” she said. “We need training and mentoring opportunities, as well as seats. I do appreciate the board’s concern with the perception, and we need to come back with details about what we’re getting and giving.”

Expansion

East Cooper Montessori Charter opened a decade ago in one mobile unit with 44 students. The excellent-rated school has built a strong reputation, and it has grown to about 250 students in grades 1 through 8.

Although it built a $2.3 million building and has two mobile units, that still isn’t enough space for the nearly 200 students who applied for 18 slots this year.

Moving into Laing Middle also would give the school areas it lacks, such as a gym, cafeteria and media center.

“The opportunity to grow into a building as opposed to growing out of one is very exciting,” Swanigan said. “The sky is the limit when we actually have the space to do additional programming.”

In return, the charter school would host a Montessori certification program on site for teachers who want Montessori certification. It would provide consulting services to the district, as well as access to its templates, systems and parent engagement resources.

It also would serve as a “lab” for the district by hiring assistant teachers with the intention of preparing them to be lead teachers in new Montessori schools such as James Simons Elementary or Murray-LaSaine Elementary.

Swanigan said the school reflected on what it would have been nice to know when it started, and those are the kinds of resources it would offer. The goal is to reduce other schools’ learning curves and build stronger programs, she said.

“It’s a menu of things that we think that we can provide,” she said. “As their Montessori (programs) gain footing, those needs will dissipate.”

Instead of rent, the charter school would pay with in-kind services that it estimated would be worth up to $500,000 annually, according to the proposal.

‘Turned a corner’

South Carolina doesn’t give charter schools money for buildings, so that means any facility money comes from the same budget for classroom instruction. Charter school advocates say that’s not fair.

A piece of local legislation, Act 189, which is applicable only to Charleston County, prohibits the district from denying a charter school anything that is otherwise available to a public school.

Some say that means the district is obligated to give charter schools buildings and transportation, but the district’s position has been that the law is unconstitutional because it obligates the district to do more than general state law requires.

The school board sued the state in 2008 on the law, and the case has been in court since then, making it all the way to the state Supreme Court. The litigation is back in circuit court, and a trial is slated for December.

Despite that lawsuit, the Charleston County School Board has allowed charter schools to use its buildings. Mary Carmichael, executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, credited the school district with doing more than any other in the state in trying to find facility solutions for its charter schools.

“There aren’t many local districts that are willing to create these opportunities,” she said. “Charleston has turned a corner and has embraced charter schools more within its portfolio of school choice.”

The school district built Orange Grove Elementary Charter, a $22.3 million new building in 2009, and it has budgeted $25 million for improvements to James Island Charter High in this building program.

The board also has allowed the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science to use part of the former Rivers Middle building, which received a $25 million renovation, without paying any rent.

With those deals in mind, Swanigan said East Cooper Montessori isn’t getting special treatment, and it would provide the district with a number of services.

“This isn’t favoritism,” she said. “This is a business agreement.”

Still, others wonder why they aren’t in talks for the same deal.

“We have a track record,” said Rogers at Charleston Development Academy. “We expect our children to succeed. What is it that we’re not doing?”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.