Karen Moore feels ashamed when she remembers how adamant she was that her son, Ellis, would not attend Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island.

By the numbers

These are enrollment figures for each of Charleston County's 81 schools broken down by ethnicity. The numbers are based on the 45-day count from this school year.

School Name Black White Hispanic Asian Enrollment Total

Charleston County School District 20478 21187 3560 679 47123

A. C. Corcoran Elementary School 524 125 62 27 775

Academic Magnet High School 17 526 15 45 616

Angel Oak Elementary School 146 118 124 1 394

ARMS Academy at Morningside Middle 285 17 53 2 363

Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary 72 447 13 13 569

Baptist Hill High School 362 24 20 0 412

Belle Hall Elementary School 86 600 22 19 735

Buist Academy 56 362 6 25 460

Burke Middle & High School 458 3 4 0 466

C. C. Blaney Elementary School 246 8 3 0 257

C. E. Williams Middle School for Creative and Scientific Arts 261 312 30 14 642

Charles Pinckney Elementary School 75 1084 20 37 1251

Charleston Charter School for Math and Science 215 274 9 9 513

Charleston County School Of The Arts 146 842 32 39 1091

Charleston Development Academy Public Charter 189 2 2 0 195

Charleston Progressive Academy 351 1 1 2 361

Chicora School of Communications: An Elementary Magnet 430 6 13 0 455

Drayton Hall Elementary School 183 482 22 12 828

E. B. Ellington Elementary School 198 42 57 1 300

East Cooper Montessori Charter School 2 246 4 8 262

Edith L. Frierson Elementary School 135 4 6 0 149

Edmund A. Burns Elementary 472 19 24 1 528

EXCEL Academy at Morningside Middle 242 17 48 1 319

Fort Johnson Middle School 106 393 9 6 525

Garrett Academy of Technology 685 18 13 2 722

Greg Mathis Charter High School 79 2 0 0 82

Harbor View Elementary School 59 454 14 4 540

Haut Gap Middle School 218 204 88 0 524

Hunley Park Elementary School 319 105 83 9 544

James B. Edwards Elementary School 115 422 30 7 578

James Island Charter High School 405 958 55 23 1473

James Island Elementary School 206 255 12 9 504

James Island Middle School 134 196 10 2 351

James Simons Elementary School 213 53 2 2 273

Jane Edwards Elementary School 54 27 6 0 89

Jennie Moore Elementary School 121 603 15 7 760

Jerry Zucker Middle School of Science 347 72 73 5 513

Julian Mitchell Math and Science Elementary School 371 4 3 0 382

Ladson Elementary School 421 192 183 12 850

Laing Middle School 121 516 13 11 667

Lambs Elementary School 219 63 90 2 379

Laurel Hill Primary School 78 907 31 37 1075

Lincoln Middle-High School 138 11 0 0 154

Malcolm C. Hursey Elementary School 293 69 30 1 404

Mamie P. Whitesides Elementary School 107 475 40 10 654

Mary Ford Elementary School 438 4 10 3 463

Matilda F. Dunston Elementary School 255 20 83 1 370

Memminger School of Global Studies 368 13 1 9 393

Midland Park Primary School 205 47 351 1 616

Military Magnet Academy 391 26 42 0 467

Minnie Hughes Elementary School 197 5 13 1 218

Montessori Community School 14 192 7 6 235

Moultrie Middle School 121 646 28 9 821

Mt Pleasant Academy 39 509 2 8 566

Mt Zion Elementary School 127 40 110 0 310

Murray LaSaine Elementary School 233 93 8 4 342

North Charleston Creative Arts 159 63 9 4 254

North Charleston Elementary School 410 33 90 2 562

North Charleston High School 440 25 23 2 493

Northwoods Middle School 648 109 161 8 947

Oakland Elementary School 320 176 11 13 544

Orange Grove Elementary Charter School 194 552 31 6 802

Pattison's Academy for Comprehensive Education 15 17 0 0 32

Pepperhill Elementary School 484 61 77 3 636

Pinehurst Elementary School 159 43 302 2 511

R. B. Stall High School 732 148 230 10 1152

Sanders-Clyde Elementary School 632 4 11 0 658

Springfield Elementary School 323 251 32 16 650

St Andrew's School of Math and Science 277 387 31 23 744

St. Andrew's Middle School 205 91 8 6 320

St. James-Santee Elementary School 243 13 0 0 256

St. John's High School 196 34 48 2 282

Stiles Point Elementary School 82 588 14 11 717

Stono Park Elementary School 387 45 14 4 460

Sullivan's Island Elementary School 4 437 8 4 465

The Apple Charter School 83 2 1 0 87

Thomas C. Cario Middle School 135 1077 39 33 1310

W. B. Goodwin Elementary School 450 29 186 2 683

Wando High School 434 3060 99 46 3688

West Ashley High School 864 740 76 29 1753

West Ashley Middle School 254 47 14 6 332

Source: Charleston County School District

This was in 2009 when the school was rated below average, 94 percent of its students were high poverty, and 12 percent of its students were white. All that Moore had heard about the school was negative.

Schools' stories

The following show the changes that schools did or didn't experience when Charleston County school leaders allowed schools to adopt a theme and expand enrollment boundaries.

Substantial demographic changes and a larger enrollment

Haut Gap: Began offering an advanced studies partial magnet program during the 2009-10 school year.

2008-09: 74 percent of its students were black and 94 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 205 students.

2013-14*: 42 percent of its students are black, and 80 percent lived in poverty. It enrolls 524 students.

Hursey Elementary in North Charleston: Began offering a Montessori partial magnet program in addition to its traditional classes during the 2007-08 school year. The majority of Hursey families surveyed said they want to expand Montessori to the rest of the school.

2007-08: 86 percent of its students were black, and 99 percent of its students live in poverty. It enrolled 290 students.

2013-14*: 73 percent are black and 91 percent live in poverty. It enrolls 404 students.

James Simons Elementary downtown: Began offering Montessori classes in addition to traditional classes in 2013-14. It plans to phase out its traditional classes and only offer Montessori.

2012-13: 99 percent of its students were black and 99 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 224 students.

2013-14: 78 percent of its students are black. It enrolls 273 students.

Laing Middle in Mount Pleasant: Adopted a whole-school science and technology focus during the 2009-10 school year. The school aims to integrate STEM concepts in every classroom every day.

2008-09: 32 percent of its students were black, and 43 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 423 students.

2013-14*: 18 percent of its students are black, and 45 percent live in poverty. The school enrolls 667 students.

Little to no demographic or enrollment changes

Burke High downtown: Started an AP Academy during the 2008-09 school year.

2008-09: 99 percent of its students were black, and 95 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 560 students.

2013-14*: 98 percent of its students are black, and 97 percent live in poverty. It enrolls 466 students.

Chicora Elementary in North Charleston: Began a whole-school communications focus during the 2009-10 school year.

2008-09: 96 percent of its students were black, and 99 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 369 students.

2013-14*: 95 percent of its students are black, and 100 percent live in poverty. It enrolls 455 students.

Memminger Elementary downtown: Began offering a whole-school focus on global studies during the 2009-10 school year. The school plans to work toward becoming an approved International Baccalaureate school.

2008-09: 97 percent of its students were black and 96 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 293 students.

2013-14*: 94 percent of its students are black and 98 percent live in poverty. It enrolls 393 students.

Mitchell Elementary downtown: Began a whole-school math and science focus during the 2009-10 school year. The school also started a Montessori program in 2009 that attracted a more diverse student body, but that program was moved to James Simons Elementary this school year.

2008-09: 100 percent of its students were black, and 98 percent lived in poverty. It enrolled 306 students.

2013-14*: 97 percent of its students are black, and 90 percent live in poverty. It enrolls 382 students.

Changes on the way

- West Ashley Middle and St. Andrews Middle will be combined for the 2014-15 school year, and the combined school will offer a new advanced studies magnet program.

- C.C. Blaney Elementary will close at the end of this school year, and its students will be redistributed between E.B. Ellington and Minnie Hughes elementaries for the 2014-15 school year. C.C. Blaney will be reopened as a magnet school for advanced studies in 2015.

- Frierson Elementary on Wadmalaw Island will become a technology-themed magnet school in 2014-15. - A new Mount Pleasant magnet school for advanced studies will open in the fall 2015 in the former Whitesides Elementary School building.

*The most recent poverty statistics available were from the 2012-13 school year.

Source: Charleston County School District, S.C. Department of Education

Moore changed her mind after speaking with then principal Paul Padron about the school's new advanced- studies program for high-achieving students. Intrigued, she and her husband enrolled their son.

"It's the best thing we ever did," said Moore, who is white and works as an audiologist. "It was the first time my child had been accepted for who he is."

Haut Gap Middle has seen a dramatic transformation since 2009. Its test scores have skyrocketed, and it has a more racially balanced make-up.

It also is the exception rather than the norm. Fifty years after the first black students walked through the doors of Charleston County schools, the district still struggles to offer racially balanced learning environments. Of the district's 81 schools, 19 percent are made up almost solely of black students. Two percent are composed mostly of white students.

The issue is not a lack of diversity of students enrolled in Charleston County. Of the district's roughly 47,000 students, 44 percent are black and 45 percent are white. But fewer than 10 of the district's schools are within a few percentage points of reflecting that district-wide reality.

Racially imbalanced schools give students less of a chance at future success, and white and more-affluent black families are more likely to abandon high-minority, high-poverty schools. Their departure further destabilizes those schools, which in turn undermines the community's attempts to maintain a well-educated workforce. In the district's six schools rated "at-risk," roughly nine out of 10 students are black, and more than 97 percent live in poverty in five schools.

One of Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley's biggest initiatives has been a partial magnet program, which gave schools a makeover by adopting themes and expanding attendance zones. The goal was to boost achievement, diversity and enrollment, and those efforts have been met with varying success.

Schools such as Burke High and Chicora, Memminger and Mitchell elementaries have tried new programs and themes, but they have seen almost no lasting change in their student enrollment or test scores.

Others, such as Haut Gap and Laing middle, have seen substantial change.

Haut Gap had been losing students to middle schools in other areas, and Padron wanted the community to return to its neighborhood school.

That has happened. Its enrollment has more than doubled, and it is rated "good" by the state. It has a more balanced racial make-up - 39 percent of its students are white and 42 percent are black - and its percentage of low-income students has dropped to 80 percent.

Many families and officials feel hopeful that the same kind of turnaround can happen at other schools, such as James Simons and Hursey elementaries, both of which seem to have found fresh energy in new themes and strong parental support.

McGinley said the partial magnet program has brought more racial balance to some schools, but many still fight false public perception problems of subpar academics and dangerous campuses.

"I still think we have a long way to go," she said.

How we got here

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, but South Carolina's resistance to change meant that it would be another nine years until the first black students enrolled in Charleston County's white schools. South Carolina was among five states where lawmakers adopted resolutions declaring the Brown case "null, void and no effect."

The NAACP filed a lawsuit, Minerva Brown v. School Board District 20, in 1959 to desegregate the district, and a federal judge ruled in 1963 that black children should be allowed to attend any district school. That decision was bolstered by the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, which ended discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Despite such measures, a local complaint triggered the U.S. Justice Department to file a desegregation lawsuit against the school district in 1981, and it considered two key issues:

Did legislators act with discriminatory intent when they created the Charleston County School District and its constituent districts in 1968?

Did the county's schools have a larger obligation to desegregate as a result of consolidation?

In 1990, U.S. District Judge Sol Blatt Jr. ruled "no" to both questions, saying true integration wasn't possible in part because of the difficulty in busing students across the county's rivers and its 100-mile-long expanse.

"While this court does find that the retention of the constituent districts for attendance purposes has had the effect of making integration slightly more difficult, this finding is undercut by the geography, demography and private school choices of Charleston County," he wrote.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Blatt's decision, and that meant the federal courts couldn't force changes in the name of integration, such as busing.

Neighborhood schools

Robert Rosen, who was the school district's attorney in the desegregation case, has said the U.S. Supreme Court didn't require "racial balance." It forbids discrimination and desegregation, but it doesn't require that every school in the community reflect the racial composition of the overall school system.

"Charleston County is 100 miles long and 938 square miles large," Rosen wrote in a commentary piece for The Post and Courier in 2004. "It is one of the largest school districts in the nation. Mount Pleasant is overwhelmingly white. Wadmalaw Island is overwhelmingly black. Dozens of subdivisions are 'segregated' if by segregation we mean that the residents are members of only one race. How can schools change that?"

McGinley agreed with that premise, saying she doesn't think all schools should reflect the district-wide percentages of white and black students. Her expectations change depending on who lives in schools' neighborhoods.

"I expect them to be serving the neighborhood kids," she said.

Millicent Brown was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit to desegregate downtown schools, and she was one of the first 12 students to enroll in downtown's all-white schools.

Brown, now an associate history and sociology professor at Claflin University in Orangeburg, said 50 years after she walked through the doors of downtown, all-white Rivers High, black and white residents of Charleston still mostly operate in separate societies. She questioned how schools can be expected to reflect something different when the community still is "running to our separate corners."

"If you get started on a process as intricate and complex as how do we undo hundreds of years of separation, and we do it through the school system, what we're doing is, we're flying blind into a complex issue," she said. "Even though time has passed, what we did first was we feared so much the unknown so then we fled from it. So we have a whole generation deploring the idea that we have to do something we don't want to do. That's not an environment for really changing people's concepts. You're still resisting at every turn."

Charleston, as well as most of the country, never had the kind of dialogue that was needed to bring about a real transformation in the school district, Brown said. Instead of doing what some communities did, such as hosting community meetings and making formal pledges that all children be educated, Charleston avoided desegregation, she said.

Those sentiments in many ways have become entrenched, she said.?The community hasn't come to grips with the fact that "we're all in the same boat," and that problems at certain schools eventually will affect the rest of the community, Brown said.

"We just need to figure a way to chase head-on some of the skepticism and fears that still remain. They're real. ... It never gets easier, but I don't know that it can be accomplished without it."

A parental problem

Research has shown that students who attend racially diverse schools have better critical-thinking skills, an ability to adopt multiple perspectives, a lesser likelihood to accept stereotypes, higher academic achievement, higher college enrollment rates and more prestigious jobs, according to research briefs published by the National Coalition on School Diversity.

On the other hand, students who are enrolled in high-minority, "segregated" schools are more likely to experience "harmful educational outcomes," according to the research. That's because integrated schools are more likely to have stable staffs of highly qualified teachers, as well as higher educational expectations and higher levels of students' performance than students from segregated settings.

Choice has become a priority in Charleston County schools during the past few years, and parents have more options than ever. They can request transfers out of their neighborhood schools, move into more desirable schools' attendance zones, or apply to magnet schools.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, said she doesn't blame parents who want the best for their children, but some white parents won't enroll their children in schools with a majority minority student body, regardless of its academic achievement.

"As long as it's predominantly minority, folks who have choices are not going to send their kids there," she said. "Children don't have the problem; it's the parents."

Military Magnet Academy and Garrett Academy in North Charleston are examples of that kind of school. Both schools have themes and accept students from across the county, and both high schools have been rated "excellent" by the state for the past three years. Eighty-four percent of Military Magnet's students are black, and 95 percent of students at Garrett Academy are black.

Black parents won't say anything about their children being a minority in a mostly white school, but if roles were reversed, most white parents wouldn't put their children in that situation, Scott said. That's a generalization, not an absolute, she said.

"We don't talk about race," Scott said. "We don't want to really deal with the issues. People still are so polarized and divided along race lines."

Academic Magnet High, School of the Arts and Buist Academy are considered among the most desirable schools in the county, and white students make up more than 77 percent of their students.

Academic Magnet and School of the Arts tried this year to recruit and enroll more minority students, and time will tell whether those efforts have been successful.

Haut Gap success

Magnet schools were created across the country to promote voluntary racial integration in urban areas, and they are associated with higher student achievement and motivation.

To increase diversity and boost achievement, McGinley introduced in 2007 a program that allowed schools to reinvent themselves by becoming partial magnets. Schools formed planning teams of educators, parents and community members to pick a theme, and chosen schools received extra money and permission to expand their attendance zone.

The first five partial magnets launched in fall 2009; those schools were Chicora Elementary in North Charleston, Haut Gap Middle on Johns Island, Laing Middle in Mount Pleasant, and Memminger and Mitchell elementaries on the peninsula.

Of that group, Haut Gap has seen the most significant and lasting changes. Padron, now the district's associate superintendent for middle schools, was the principal of Haut Gap in 2009 and spearheaded the change.

The school was on the verge of becoming one of the state's most persistently dangerous schools, so Padron set about creating a school climate that was conducive to student learning.

"All parents want a quality education (for their children), but more than that, they want a safe environment," he said.

He started changing the school by adopting a widely used behavioral program that teaches students how to act in different settings, sets expectations, and rewards students who demonstrate good behavior.

The community's parents wanted an academically rigorous program, so Padron hired the best teachers he could find and planned to offer courses that would give students high school credits before leaving eighth grade.

Then, he sold it.

Padron spoke at churches, community centers and elementary schools. He took every opportunity he had to talk with prospective parents about what the new program would provide for their children.

"It's a matter of going out there and putting in place what you say you will," he said. "Parents know what quality is, and I give credit to that core group of (white) families who came and said, 'I'm going to trust you and take a chance.' They helped change that school."

That initial group of families who enrolled in fall 2009 helped spread the word about the new Haut Gap program.

Moore was one of those parents. She spent two hours one morning listening to Padron, meeting students and touring the school. Padron would call her later and ask whether she had any other questions. She chalks up much of her willingness to try the school to Padron, whom she described as the driving force behind it.

"After I talked to (Padron), it was a no-brainer," she said. "He said, 'Please, trust me.' That's sort of what sold me. He had a passion that was addictive. After we got in there, you drank the punch. You wanted to be a part of it."

Moore knew only one other student who was enrolling in the program, but that didn't faze her. She also didn't mind when her son took electives with students who weren't part of the advanced-studies program. She wanted him to be exposed to the reality that different people have varying economic situations, and that poverty is real.

"We didn't think of it as integrating," she said. "It's really just a way for him to get a good education."

Heather Loucks' daughter, Robyn, also was in the inaugural class of the advanced-studies program at Haut Gap. Loucks and Robyn toured all the available middle schools, and they talked about the options with Wayne, Loucks' husband, and picked the downtown Charleston Charter School for Math & Science.

Then they received a letter about the new Haut Gap program that touted the opportunity to earn high school credits. Because the Louckses weren't from here - they are from Canada - they were less concerned with the negativity surrounding certain schools.

They met Padron and bought into his vision.

"He was able to build the program in his mind and translate that to an eager group of parents," she said.

The advanced-studies program has affected the diversity of the school's regular classes, which appear to have as much as, if not more, racial diversity than the program's classes.

Burke High's history

Haut Gap's transformation has been markedly different from another school, Burke High, that attempted a similar effort.

From its inception in 1894 as the Charleston Industrial Institute, Burke has been an institution that existed to serve black students. It was the only public high school for black students in Charleston until 1947, and it has been the heart and pride of the black community.

That history is significant, because Burke hasn't been a victim of "white flight." Rather, white students rarely have attended the school - ever.

White residents have been increasingly vocal in recent years about the need for a high-quality, neighborhood school downtown, but they haven't seen Burke High as a viable option.

Burke has been threatened twice with state takeover because of its academic shortcomings. The lone downtown neighborhood public high school has been plagued by low test scores and a stigma as an unsafe school with inadequate course offerings.

The effect has been an exodus of students from Burke. Of the 13,245 children ages 15 to 19 who live downtown, just 466 are enrolled at Burke High. Only 45 percent of public school students who are zoned to attend Burke actually go there, which is among the lowest percentages in the district. Most downtown families with the financial means opt for private schools.

Principal Maurice Cannon said it's more of a problem of reputation rather than reality. The school boosted its state report card rating to "average" this year.

"The school is not violent or out of control, but the perception is that it is," said Cannon, who has worked at the school for eight years. "Do we have our challenges? Yes. Is it rosy every day? No. But compared to other diverse schools, I'm celebrating where we are right now with student climate and student behavior. We've gone on a long run of little to no major issues."

Burke High AP Academy

School district leaders have tried a number of plans to improve students' performance at Burke, and one of those was the Advanced Placement Academy. The idea was that the school would offer tougher classes and attract top students from downtown and across the county.

Much like the Haut Gap effort, the academy was designed as a program within the school, which meant students would take their core academic classes together and mingle with the rest of the student body in elective classes.

The success that Haut Gap has experienced has eluded Burke High. Cannon, who was not the principal when the AP Academy was launched in the fall of 2008, pointed out that the school's AP teachers go through the same certification requirements as those in other district schools, but parents still don't send their children to Burke.

He said he's heard that white families want the school to offer a rigorous program before they enroll their children, but that already exists.

"It goes back to why aren't (people) attending their community school?" he said. "I give everyone my word that this can be a school that will not disappoint or let them down."

Scott, the Charleston NAACP president, said she doesn't know what it would take to attract white families to Burke High. Even if the school were functioning at a high level, unless white families felt as if their children would be in the majority, they would not enroll, she said. Too few minority parents also are willing to enroll their children, she said.

"I really believe it's too late," she said. "Until we call it what it is and publicly identify it, that's not going to change."

The lack of confidence in Burke isn't relegated to white parents; black parents who live downtown also have chosen to send their children elsewhere. Charles Pearson is among them.

Pearson graduated from Burke High, as did most of his family, but he said he didn't feel as though the school is offering the same quality education that he received.

"I feel like the school board has let down parents as well as students at Burke," he said. "There's no real concern. They feel like they can do whatever they want."

Pearson, who owns a small repair shop, said he didn't like the idea of his daughter attending a school where both middle school and high school students shared a campus, and the school has lost many good teachers. Two of his children are enrolled at the Charleston Charter School for Math & Science, and he said he based his decision on where he thought his children could get the best education. It hasn't been a popular decision among his friends.

"I feel like I made the best decision of my life," he said.

Todd Garrett, a white school board member and father who lives downtown, has been among those advocating for Burke High to shut down and reopen. He doesn't think the school would have to be a majority white school for white families to enroll their children, but it would need a more diverse student body. The student body is 98 percent black, and 97 percent of its students live in poverty.

The school could close and immediately reopen with more autonomy and more local control by a board of parents who live in the community, he said. That way, parents would feel invested and as if they have more of a say, he said.

Burke High has a proud history, and that is intimidating to parents who feel as if any proposed change will be fought by the Charleston NAACP or by the school's alumni association, he said.

"Parents aren't going to feel comfortable; there's no room for them to be involved," Garrett said.

Charleston has work to do toward racial reconciliation, and there are real scars from emotional wounds that were left on the black community, he said.

"Segregated schools serve to divide the community at the earliest level," he said. "It prevents children, parents and community leaders who live in the same neighborhoods from ever even knowing each other, much less working together. The effort to heal and reconcile the community along racial lines requires a united effort."

Where to go from here

McGinley points to four things Haut Gap did to make it successful - a neighborhood planning team that surveyed the community on what it wanted; an expansion to include fifth grade; the principal personally worked hard to market the school; and the school changed its culture through the behavior program.

When she compares those four points with Burke's AP Academy, she sees similarities in Burke's outreach to the community to offer a desirable program. A major difference is the scrutiny of Burke in comparison with Haut Gap, she said. Burke High is one of the district's most high-profile, politicized schools.

"Before anything gains traction or has a chance to get refined, people are coming out ... and scrutinizing everything," she said.

It's more than a black or white issue, McGinley said, and said many black families send their children to county-wide magnet schools to avoid Burke High. Those trends can be changed, but it's not a one-time going out and selling of the school, she said.

"It's constant marketing and branding and delivering on the promises," she said. "... We can do the same at Burke and at other schools if we listen to what parents want and then figure out how to make that happen."

The Haut Gap model can be replicated with the understanding that every segment of the community has different conditions and aren't identical, she said.

"We have to make sure that we are listening to what people want and providing what people want," she said.

That's one of the reasons the district recommended and the school board approved a proposal to combine West Ashley Middle and St. Andrews Middle in West Ashley. Both schools are made up primarily of minority students and enroll less than 40 percent of the public school students who live in their attendance zones.

Haut Gap was the inspiration for the combined school, which will offer an advanced-studies program. The hope is that will help persuade families to return to the school.

A similar change already is happening at James Simons Elementary, a downtown school that has adopted a Montessori focus. Last school year it enrolled two white students. That number rose to 53 this year.

Andrea Lowder is among the white parents who enrolled her child in the school this year. She wanted her daughter to be in a public school in her neighborhood, and she heard from her neighborhood association, Wagner Terrace, about the school's new program.

"I knew there were other people coming, and there was a movement," she said. "We were excited and we wanted to be a part of it."

Lowder said she doesn't want any neighborhood students to leave the school, and she hopes more families embrace it.

"The kids who are already there are going to benefit from (the Montessori) program too," she said. "There's a lot of hope."

Principal Quenetta White said she's excited about the school's growing diversity, and that it prepares children for "real life." Wagner Terrace is a diverse community, so it makes sense that the school would reflect that, she said. And, she said, it's not just white families who are looking at James Simons; middle class and affluent black families also are considering the school as an option.

"It's not race," she said. "It's parents who want the best for their children."

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at dcourrege@postandcourier.com.