The issue of whether Murray-Lasaine Elementary School should become a Montessori school had parents and community members divided along racial lines during a forum at the school Monday night.

More than 100 people attended the meeting at the James Island school where school officials fielded dozens of questions regarding a plan to transition the school to an exclusively Montessori curriculum by 2020.

Some questioned why Murray-Lasaine, a predominantly black school, was targeted for a transition to a Montessori curriculum rather than one of the other elementary schools on the island that have more white students. Terri Nichols, associate superintendent for elementary schools, said a neighborhood planning team voted in 2012 to move forward with a Montessori program at the school as a way to increase dwindling enrollment.

Lisa Herring, chief academic officer for the school district, said the area zoned for attendance at Murray-Lasaine is 83 percent white. The school however was around 80 percent black when Montessori was implemented last school year.

"This has always been a predominantly black school," one woman said. "We would like for it to remain that way."

"We recognized this issue is race related," Herring said. "But as a school district we think of all children."

The meeting Monday is the result of pressure from a group of Murray-Lasaine parents, many of whom are black, who have urged the Charleston County School Board to revisit the decision to make the elementary school exclusively Montessori. Those parents would like the school to continue offering both traditional and Montessori classes, which they insist is what school district officials said would happen. They also feel Montessori isn't for every child and that parents should have a choice. The district plans to implement a new attendance zone for the school so that students whose parents prefer traditional classes will be zoned to go to a traditional school in their area.

Montessori classes differ from traditional learning by encouraging students to work independently with more hands-on instruction.

Supporters of Montessori attended a School Board meeting last week waiving signs that read "Yes Full Montessori," and several people spoke in favor of continuing with making the school exclusively Montessori.

The School Board's Strategic Education Committee voted last month to hold a meeting at Murray-Lasaine to air any concerns and find out what parents want. The committee will revisit the issue at a meeting later this month. The full School Board would have to vote to make any changes at the school.

Shante Ellis, who is among the parents who would like to keep traditional classes at the school, said Monday she didn't feel her questions or concerns were addressed during the meeting.

"They were supposed to come and listen to our community about how we got to this point," she said. "Not tell us how we got to this point."

District officials did not directly address questions about whether parents were ever told the school would keep traditional classes.

Lauren Dasher, whose daughter just completed pre-kindergarten in a Montessori class, said she attended the meeting to support the Montessori program. She said her child's experience with Montessori has been good, and she would have to rethink sending her daughter to the school should the board reverse the plans for the Montessori program.

"There's no way I would take her from a Montessori classroom to a traditional classroom based on the experience that she's had," Dasher said.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546.