Public Montessori school options in the Lowcountry

Murray-LaSaine Elementary on James Island will pilot five Montessori classrooms this fall, and it eventually will offer only Montessori instruction.

James Simons Elementary will offer Montessori classes to some students this fall, and the downtown school eventually will offer only Montessori instruction.

Other public options with a Montessori focus in Charleston County are: Montessori Community School in West Ashley and East Cooper Montessori Charter School in Mount Pleasant.

Mitchell Elementary downtown and Hursey Elementary in North Charleston have Montessori programs, as does Whitesville Elementary in Berkeley County.

North Charleston is the only “zone” in Charleston County that doesn’t have a full Montessori school, and some say that’s a problem.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley has pledged to make the same choice offerings available in each of four geographic areas or “zones,” and school officials are working on a proposal to do that in North Charleston.

“This isn’t about traditional versus Montessori,” said North Charleston parent Louise Monteith, who has three children in Montessori classes at Hursey Elementary in North Charleston. “This is about my kids having the same opportunity that the kids downtown have and that the kids in West Ashley have.”

A range of residents, from parents to Mayor Keith Summey, have been speaking out about the need to open a full Montessori school in their community, and to do it soon. Many were disappointed in the school board’s recent decision not to convert Hursey Elementary, which offers traditional and Montessori classes, into a full Montessori school.

“We’ve been trying to get parents to keep their kids in North Charleston schools, and we’re starting to get more young people in North Charleston,” Summey said. “There is a demand for that type of choice.”

Across the district, more than 500 students are on a waiting list for Montessori classes. Montessori education encourages students to learn at their own pace and work independently, and teachers do more individual lessons rather than instructing an entire class.

North Charleston resident Kathleen Hamrick was trying to figure out where to enroll her daughter for kindergarten when she visited Hursey’s Montessori program. She saw a classroom with ample natural light and 3- to 5-year-olds who worked quietly and independently.

She was so impressed that she pulled her daughter out of her private pre-school to enroll her in Hursey’s Montessori program. At the time Hursey was rated “at risk,” but Hamrick said she was willing to try the school because Montessori students were well-behaved and learning at high levels.

“The classroom I saw wasn’t an ‘at-risk’ classroom,” she said.

North Charleston resident Catherine Loichinger’s 3-year-old son started at Hursey last fall, and she echoed reasons similar to Hamrick’s. She couldn’t believe a room full of children could be so quiet, and she said the small, intimate setting reminded her of the school where she grew up.

“We were blown away by the atmosphere,” Loichinger said. “We love it.”

The school board agreed at its last meeting to expand Montessori programs at Hursey so that current students and students on the school’s Montessori waiting list would be accommodated. Some board members and the Charleston NAACP are opposed to doing that, because it will force some of Hursey’s students to be moved.

The board asked district officials to plan to return to it with more options and cost estimates for a full Montessori program in North Charleston.

School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said the board has made it clear that it supports Montessori, and she plans to push for the creation of a full Montessori school in North Charleston.

“I don’t think this is something North Charleston deserves in two years,” she said. “We need to find a solution to this quickly.”

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