WHAT: Meeting for Murray Lasaine parents to discuss the implementation of Montessori

WHERE: Murray Lasaine Elementary School, 691 Riverland Drive on James Island.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. June 30

As a parent, Heather Blake has experienced traditional and Montessori-style classrooms at Murray Lasaine Elementary School which her two children attend.

One of her children just finished the fourth grade in a traditional classroom while the other completed a successful year in a first-grade Montessori classroom. Blake, a North Charleston resident, chooses to send her two children to the small James Island school to support the school her husband attended as a child.

"There's always been a good rapport with the school," she said.

Blake is among a group of parents who have been raising concerns to the Charleston County School Board in recent months about plans to make Murray Lasaine exclusively a Montessori school. The parents say it's not that they don't like Montessori-style learning - many of their children have thrived in Montessori classes - it's that they feel Montessori isn't right for every child and that parents should have a choice between a Montessori or traditional education for their children. It's an issue that's been raised at other district schools where Montessori is being implemented.

Adding Montessori, which differs from traditional learning by encouraging students to work independently with more hands-on instruction, was meant to increase enrollment at the school by drawing in more families, particularly white families, who were previously choosing to send their children to other schools. But it's divided parents along racial lines with some black parents claiming the Charleston County School District misled them and didn't give parents a chance to voice their opinions.

The concerns have caused some Charleston County School Board members to rethink plans to make Murray Lasaine a Montessori school. Board members Tom Ducker, the Rev. Chris Collins and Craig Ascue voted during a meeting of the board's Strategic Education Committee last week to hold a community forum at the school later this month to air concerns and find out what parents want.

The danger in revisiting the issue, Ducker said at the meeting, is that overturning full implementation of Montessori at Murray Lasaine could impact a $10 million renovation at the school that will redesign the classrooms to accommodate the Montessori learning style. It could also open the door to revisiting Montessori programs at James Simmons and Hursey elementaries where some parents have raised similar concerns.

Misunderstanding

Murray Lasaine parent Yolanda Gibbs is among the parents leading the charge to keep traditional classes at the school. Gibbs served on a neighborhood planning committee in 2012 to evaluate ways to keep Murray Lasaine open in the face of a dwindling school population.

Gibbs said when the committee supported Montessori it was understood that Murray Lasaine would incorporate Montessori classes but would continue to offer traditional classes as well - but that's not what happened. The school board voted in November 2012 to implement Montessori at Murray Lasaine with plans to phase out traditional classes by 2020.

Shante Ellis, whose son Mario Williams was involved in a pilot Montessori class in 2012, feels the district didn't clearly communicate the plans for Montessori curriculum at the school and that left parents unable to have their voices heard.

"I don't believe any of the parents during that time would have agreed to that (had they known)," she said.

Gibbs is adamant that the district told the neighborhood committee the school would continue to include traditional classes.

"This is not a fight I'm willing to give up on," she said. "Those promises should be kept."

LaDene Conroy, the school district's Montessori specialist for development, support and expansion, said the plan was always to make all classes at Murray Lasaine Montessori. The school will continue to offer traditional classes for kindergarten through fifth grade until 2015 when the school will begin to phase out traditional classes starting with kindergarten. One grade will be phased out per year until the school is exclusively Montessori.

District officials are currently discussing the possibility of creating a Montessori attendance zone that would give families zoned to go to a Montessori school another option if they prefer their children attend a traditional school.

The issue, Conroy said, is that change can be difficult, especially for families who have long ties to the school.

"I think it's very hard to relocate something that we're fond of or there's a tradition with," she said. "We have to respect parents historically who have perhaps gone to that school or all of their family members as well as wanting their children to continue on with the tradition."

Racial divide

The issue of whether to make Murray Lasaine a full Montessori school has caused a division among parents at the school, one that has fallen along racial lines. While black parents have argued to keep traditional classes at the school, white parents want to stick with the plan to fully implement the Montessori curriculum.

"My son's class is rocking," said Murray Lasaine parent Katy Calloway. "The Montessori program is clearly working in his classroom."

Calloway moved to Charleston with her family last year after spending a year in Costa Rica where her son attended a private Montessori school. The Calloways found a home on James Island specifically so that their son could attend the Montessori program at Murray Lasaine.

"It's working," she said. "The kids are totally happy."

Gibbs, who is black, feels the district is using the allure of a full Montessori program to attract more white families to the predominantly black school while ignoring what black parents want.

In the two years since Montessori was first introduced, enrollment at the school has grown from around 200 to 332. The result is a change in the school's demographics which has shifted from nearly 80 percent black to around 68 percent black.

"If this school was not good enough for non-black families to come to, why all of a sudden do they want to come here?" Gibbs said. "Because of Montessori."

Gibbs said she supports increasing diversity at the school, but that she believes parents - both black and white - should be given a choice about how their children are educated.

"They should keep both education tracks as they promised," she said. "That's part of school choice."

At last week's Strategic Education Committee meeting, Ducker said he wants to get to the bottom of what the district did or did not promise.

"I'm concerned about what you guys were told but I want to know what the community wants," Ducker told Gibbs and other parents.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.