Dee Jimenez's third- and fifth-grade sons love their school days as much as they love their weekends.

The Montessori Community School of Charleston has fostered a love for learning in her children, and she wants to see them continue there through middle school.

"When you see a kid who wants to be at school, you don't want to take your chances and change that," Jimenez said.

She will get her wish. The Charleston County School Board recently agreed to allow the small, 175-student school to expand next year to include seventh grade, and eighth grade will follow the next year.

The expansion will cost $110,000 next year, $20,000 of which will go to a mobile unit for the seventh-graders and $30,000 for classroom materials. The remainder will cover a teacher's salary. Montessori education is a teaching philosophy that uses hands- on lessons and encourages students to work independently.

The school will be one of only four public schools in the state to offer a Montessori program for middle school students. East Cooper Montessori Charter School in Mount Pleasant began offering middle school classes in 2006-07, and two traditional middle schools in Laurens 55 have Montessori programs.

Ginny Riga, the state's Montessori coordinator, said the dearth of middle grade Montessori programs isn't unique to South Carolina. Although Montessori education has been around for a century, many of the state's programs have started within the last five years, she said. Most schools start their Montessori programs with primary grade classes and add more grades as children grow. It takes time for those programs

to extend to middle school, she said.

In other places, districts either don't have money to offer middle grades Montessori classes or don't believe students are interested in enrolling in those, Riga said. Some Montessori programs also lose students as they get older because they want to attend schools that offer more activities, such as football or band, she said.

The Montessori Community School opened in 1997 as a program to serve the entire county. It's nestled in a corner of Springfield Elementary School in West Ashley, and its growth has been slow and steady. About 160 students are on its waiting list.

Parents have asked program Director Kim Hay for years to add a middle school, but Hay said this year was the first that she felt ready to do that. The staff is stable and strong, and its enrollment is big enough in the early grades that it can support a decent-sized middle school class, she said.

Students will work on projects that integrate multiple subjects and community service, and lessons will be relevant, meaningful and based on the topics students care about, she said.

"It's so much more focused on kids and how they're developing," Hay said. "It's less about rule enforcement, and it's more about how kids learn best."

Sixth-grader Zoe Young has been at the Montessori Community School since first grade. Before the board approved the expansion, she had no idea where she would go to school next year. She was considering the new advanced studies program at Haut Gap Middle School, but she didn't want to leave her school, she said. She wanted to stay with her friends, and she likes that her classes don't involve a teacher constantly telling her what to do, she said. She learns everything she needs to learn, but she's able to learn what she wants to learn first, she said.

"We're pretty excited about it," Young said. "It feels like they're opening a seventh grade just for us."