Charleston schools superintendent willing to rethink Montessori at James Island school

Charleston schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley (right) along with Chief Academic Officer Lisa Herring discuss plans to re-evalute eliminating traditional classes at Murray-Lasaine at a community meeting Wednesday at Fort Johnson Middle School on James Island.

Charleston schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley is rethinking plans to make a James Island elementary school exclusively Montessori after seeing the divide the issue was creating among parents at the school.

"I'm really sorry we're here," McGinley said during a community meeting Wednesday at Fort Johnson Middle School on James Island.

McGinley's comments follow mounting tensions between parents at Murray-Lasaine Elementary School over a plan to phase out traditional classes and eventually make the school's curriculum exclusively Montessori by 2021. The issue has increasingly divided parents along racial lines with black parents preferring traditional classes while white parents want Montessori.

"If this transition ends up feeling like or being one group losing while another group is winning then we have failed," McGinley said. "I'm optimistic there is a winning solution."

The school board originally voted in 2012 to transition Murray-Lasaine to a Montessori school in the hopes of attracting more families to deal with dwindling enrollment. The board began revisiting the issue last month after a group of parents insisted school district officials lead them to believe the school would continue to offer both traditional and Montessori classes. District officials have maintained the plan was always to make Murray-Lasaine an all-Montessori school.

McGinley acknowledged that the district rushed the board to make a decision on transitioning the school to full Montessori in part because of plans to renovate the campus, which the district hoped to design with the hands-on learning associated with Montessori curriculum in mind.

Communication has been a problem in the transition, McGinley said. She also acknowledged that practices of past school boards regarding students transfers has played a role in the decline in enrollment at the school.

"We as a district helped create the situation which is unfortunate," McGinley said.

As a result of all the strife, McGinley said she wants to re-evaluate eliminating traditional classes at the school. She stressed that she still wants to move forward with the Montessori program but wants to try to find a "creative solution" to include traditional classes.

"I want to rethink whether or not there's some middle ground," she said.

More than 15 people spoke during the nearly two-hour meeting. Many Parents were receptive to McGinley's plan. Parents on either side expressed their support for their respective educational preferences and were wary of major changes.

Parent Meagan Bergeron, who supports a full transition to Montessori, said she worried that continuing to offer both Montessori and traditional classes could create classrooms that resemble "separate but equal."

"It has the potential to be a unique Montessori school in this area with its racial and socioeconomic diversity," Bergeron said.

Ronald Middleton Sr., who is a community organizer on James Island, said much of the division comes from "mistrust," adding that there have been residents in the community who have chosen not to go to the school, eluding to white flight.

In an interview after the meeting, Middleton credited McGinley's willingness to address the community's concerns.

"She tries to work with everybody," he said.

Yolanda Gibbs, who is among the parents who have raised concerns about the plans to eliminate traditional classes, said she is happy McGinley is willing to take another look.

"We just want all parents and all children the choice to decide how they want their education," she said. "For me it isn't about race, it's about children."

McGinley said she will evaluate the cost and available space at the school among other things and come up with a plan in a "sound and academically responsible way."