The move to Montessori-based teaching will continue at Hursey Elementary School, but the school board will watch to make sure the school continues to reflect the racial diversity of the North Charleston neighborhood around it.

The 5-4 Charleston County School Board vote Monday followed a long public comment session during which more than 20 people spoke for or against expanding the program at the school.

It also followed an NAACP Charleston branch news conference earlier in the day, where leaders said they are alarmed that recent moves to Montessori and other "choice" schools will create "educational ghettos" for Charleston County School District students whose families don't have the means to access those choices.

Voting to expand Montessori teaching at Hursey to seventh and eighth grade, and to continue with the gradual transition were Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats and members Craig Ascue, Tripp Wiles, Chris Fraser and Todd Garrett. Opposing were members Michael Miller, Tom Ducker, Chris Collins and Elizabeth Moffly.

Opponents wanted to phase out the program now underway at the school and move it to another location. Montessori is an education style that emphasizes individual creativity and choice.

The issue sparked long simmering racial issues about how well the school board addresses the needs of students who are minorities and the concerns of their parents, and speakers in the public comment sessions largely were divided between black and white.

State Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, warned the board to be careful about handling the balance between Montessori and traditional learning at Hursey. People in the neighborhood are "very, very suspicious, frustrated and discouraged," he said.

Beverly Gadson-Birch told the board that moving the school to Montessori learning would uproot neighborhood students, "no doubt to failing schools."

But three members of the Monteith family, whose children attend Hursey, spoke strongly favoring Montessori. Overall, more people spoke in favor than opposed.

The move is part of an overall district effort to provide sites for non-traditional learning in each area of the county. District staff have recommended gradually making the transition to a full Montessori program from a traditional program at Hursey, which now offers both. They cite the successes of the partial Montessori program now in place, particularly among minority students.

Coats, who lives in the neighborhood near Hursey, said students would have traditional choices within walking distance of their homes.

"It's not a racial divide. We're not uprooting children," she said.

The NAACP branch plans a town meeting Thursday to hear more from the community about parents' concerns with Hursey and other issues, including:

Plans to create a private-public Meeting Street Academy school on the site of the current Brentwood Middle School on Leeds Avenue.

Inequitable staffing and funding of Burke High School on President Street.

Conversions or closing of other schools.

The plans could "create schools that may appeal to a narrow racial spectrum of parents and students," the NAACP said in a news release.

Coats defended the moves as improvements for students overall, and not unfair to students attending their neighborhood schools.

"I honestly believe in my neighborhood schools - and these are my neighborhood schools as I live right in the middle of these schools," she said.

The Meeting Street Academy approach has shown success with students in the lower economic brackets, Coats said. Chris Allen, Meeting Street Education Group chief of staff, said he will meet with Dot Scott, NAACP Charleston branch president, about the branch's concerns with turning Brentwood into an academy model school.

"The Brentwood neighborhood is in need of a high quality public school, and the lessons we've learned at (Meeting Street Academy) have prepared us to deliver an excellent education to those families who may not otherwise have the ability to receive one," Allen said in an email.

Among other NAACP issues is an ongoing concern about the harsher discipline perceived to be dealt to students who are minorities.

The overall concern about inequities isn't new, but the tenor has risen with a large volume of calls the NAACP has received lately from parents about the potential problems, said the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch.

As The Post and Courier reported in a March 8 story, 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.

But 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.

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. But the district has had difficulty recruiting students who are minorities to district magnet schools.

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.

The increase in phone calls from the community "raised a red flag for us," Darby said. "If you don't have the means, you don't have the choice. If you drain those (school choice) students from neighborhood schools, those schools struggle and become educational ghettoes."

The 6:30 p.m. Thursday meeting at Morris Brown AME Church is an opportunity for the greater community to weigh in on the issues, Darby said.

If enough community voices are raised, leaders hope "maybe to get the school board to listen this time and to make some changes," said Scott.