COLUMBIA — The nation's only statewide coordinator for Montessori public education says expanding the century-old teaching method in South Carolina could improve learning in a state with the country's worst high school graduation rate.

Montessori coordinator Ginny Riga thinks the one-on-one attention from teachers, as well as students' freedom to choose their lesson and whether to work independently or with another classmate, keeps children from becoming bored or frustrated. The method, named after Italian educator Maria Montessori, allows students to master skills at their own pace, rather than being taught en masse, proponents say.

"It makes it easier to learn than if I was at school in a desk and the teacher was just writing on the chalkboard," said 10-year-old Elliot Rosenfeld, a fifth-grader at Brockman Elementary. "School is fun."

More than a decade after the state's first public Montessori class opened, 33 programs are scattered across South Carolina. Riga's job is to expand that number, partly by dispelling the stereotypes.

Though the Montessori method has been around since 1907, many parents know little about it or mistakenly view it as religious schooling for gifted and higher-income students. That's largely because the Montessori method has been used mainly in private schools. There are about 40 private programs in the state.

Riga, 58, said the method has nothing to do with religion and can boost all students' performance. At Logan Elementary in Columbia, primary teacher Sheryl Ancone bragged that all but one of her 5-year-old students can read. The 5-year-olds already were learning multiplication by putting together strings of beads.

Riga acknowledges Montessori isn't for everyone. Some students need more structure or learn better through lectures, but she contends that's a small percentage.

"There's so much emphasis on the love of learning and respect of learning, instead of push, push, push for skill and drill," Riga said.

The former principal of Brockman Elementary, the first public Montessori school in the Columbia area, Riga was named coordinator in February, becoming the second leader to join the state's new Office of School Choice. The office was created by state schools Superintendent Jim Rex as he attempts to fulfill his campaign promise to improve education, partly by giving parents more options in public schools.

Rex said having some of the nation's toughest accountability standards can only do so much, and improvement has become stagnant. Dramatic increases in student progress, and ridding the state of its worst-in-the-nation graduation rate, also will require attracting and retaining high-quality teachers and eliminating funding inequities, he said.

Rex pledged that South Carolina would become the most choice-driven public school system in the nation within his first term. So far, South Carolina offers a state-run Virtual School, where students can take online classes, and full-time virtual charter schools. Future statewide coordinators could push bilingual education, arts-infused curriculums and high-tech science and math-based schools, Rex said.

Public Montessori programs in SC

South Carolina has about the same number of public and private Montessori programs. Here's a by-the-numbers look at the programs:

Number of public Montessori middle schools: 1

Number of age levels in each classroom: 3

Number of public school districts with Montessori programs: 14

Number of public schools with Montessori programs: 33

Approximate number of private Montessori programs: 40

Start-up costs per classroom: $25,000

Year the Montessori method founded by Italian educator Maria Montessori: 1907

Year South Carolina's first public Montessori class opened: Mid-1990s

Source: South Carolina Education Department and Minnesota-based Jola Publications, which puts out Montessori school directories.