Murray-LaSaine Elementary School on James Island considers Montessori program as means to attract new families
Student enrollment at Murray-LaSaine Elementary has fallen for five years, and it’s the smallest, lowest-performing elementary school on James Island.
What is a Montessori school?
The Montessori education model is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood. Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses. Children learn at their own pace and according to their own choice of activities, and they apply what they learn to real-world scenarios.
Where is Montessori education offered in the Lowcountry? In Charleston County, Montessori Community School in West Ashley, East Cooper Montessori Charter School in Mount Pleasant, Hursey Elementary in North Charleston and Mitchell Elementary downtown offer Montessori classes. James Simons Elementary in North Charleston is slated to offer a Montessori program in fall 2013. In Berkeley County, Whitesville Elementary began a Montessori program last year.
Charleston County School District leaders want to reinvigorate the neighborhood school by giving it a Montessori focus, and they hope that appeals to the community.
“Families are transferring out,” said Ruth Taylor, assistant associate superintendent for the district’s elementary learning community. “We want to offer them choices and get them back.”
Montessori education is a teaching philosophy that encourages students to work independently, and teachers do more individual, hands-on instruction rather than group lessons.
Montessori education had been available almost exclusively in private schools, but public schools statewide have embraced the teaching method during the past few years. It’s been a hugely popular option among parents.
Murray-LaSaine enrolls nearly 200 students. Last year, about 80 percent of them were black, and more than 90 percent were high poverty. The school has made some academic improvement, with its overall state rating rising to “average” in 2008 and staying at that level since then.
Murray-LaSaine has been mentioned in recent school board conversations about the district’s smallest schools and what should become of them.
The school hasn’t been a draw for many families who live in the area, such as nearby Riverland Terrace. Beth Compton lives in the neighborhood and has third- and first-graders enrolled at Buist Academy, a magnet school that accepts students from across the county.
She was part of a group of parents who approached the school district in 2008 about making Murray-LaSaine a partial magnet with a focus such as Montessori, but she said the district shot down their suggestion.
Parents wanted to be able to send their children to a nearby school, but they didn’t feel as if Murray-LaSaine was a good option at the time, she said. Some families moved to Mount Pleasant, while others transferred to higher-performing schools, she said. She doesn’t know any neighborhood child who attends Murray-LaSaine.
“I think there is definitely an interest in a Montessori magnet school on the island,” she said. “Our children are already settled in school now so we wouldn’t send them there, but I’m sure there are other families who would. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
The school last year organized a Neighborhood Planning Team of parents, staff and community members, and the group agreed in May that the school should have a Montessori focus.
The school board received a presentation on the school’s proposal last week but didn’t take any action. The superintendent’s broad vision for the district is to have the same types of choices in its four geographic regions, and none of the elementary schools in Murray-LaSaine’s zone have a Montessori focus.
Many specifics haven’t been decided yet, such as how much it would cost, when it would become a Montessori, or whether the entire school or just a portion would offer Montessori classes, Taylor said.
One factor that could help the school’s transition is a major renovation slated for its aging facility. Interim School Principal Jim Reinhart said there’s no design yet, but whatever is done would take into account the school’s instructional offerings. Montessori classrooms require more space and specific equipment to facilitate instruction.
“You want to design something that’s going to meet the needs of the school,” he said.
Two of the school’s teachers attended a four-week Montessori training session this past summer and will do so again next summer. Second-grade teacher Jennifer Walker was one of those two, and she said she’s been incorporating Montessori techniques and ideas into her classroom this year. She can’t have a fully functional Montessori classroom because she doesn’t have the necessary materials, but she said “I work with what I have.”
That’s meant giving kids more hands-on activities and choices about what they’re doing. Instead of lecturing students and giving them a worksheet, she said she’ll give them checklists to complete and they can pick the activity to learn the day’s lesson.
“So far, kids have responded really well,” she said. “They seem to like the choices they’ve been given. ... They’re a lot more independent than in the past, and I’m giving them a lot more responsibility than I have in the past.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.