Murray-LaSaine Elementary to become exclusively Montessori

The Charleston County School Board has approved a plan to transition Murray-LaSaine Elementary School on James Island to an all Montessori school over the next six years.

Plans will move forward to transition a James Island elementary school to an all Montessori curriculum despite continued concerns by some black families who feel the move will push out minority students from the school.

The Charleston County School Board on Monday voted 6-3 to phase out traditional classes at Murray-LaSaine Elementary School to eventually make the school exclusively Montessori. Board members Michael Miller, Tom Ducker and the Rev. Chris Collins voted against the proposal while board members Cindy Bohn Coats, Todd Garrett, Tripp Wiles, Kate Darby, Chris Staubes and the Rev. Eric Mack voted for the plan.

Ducker reminded the board that last fall former Charleston schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley had proposed to keep both traditional and Montessori classes at the school to ease racial tensions among parents and community members. Miller and Collins both said the school district seems to struggle with racial tensions when a Montessori program is implemented.

“It’s always forced in and certain students are forced out,” Collins said. “Normally minority students are forced out.”

The School Board originally voted to transition Murray-LaSaine to an all Montessori curriculum in 2012 as a way to address declining enrollment, but the board began revisiting the issue last summer after some parents raised concerns about eliminating traditional classes at the school.

The racial divide was evident on Monday when around 15 people spoke on either side of the issue. Mostly white parents spoke in favor of a Montessori curriculum, while a majority of black parents spoke in favor of keeping traditional classes alongside Montessori classes.

Montessori classes differ from traditional learning by encouraging students to work independently with more hands-on instruction. The school is currently offering both styles of learning.

Several black parents raised concerns on Monday that the district’s plan to diversify and increase enrollment at the once predominantly black school is one that will lead to de facto segregation and exclusion of black students.

George Kugblenu, assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church on James Island, reminded the board that McGinley publicly apologized for the racial divide that had occurred at the school, and her proposal do offer both styles of learning.

“We are shocked to see you guys are trying to go full speed with the Montessori, totally disregarding the sentiments and feelings of the community,” he said.

But other parents said that offering both styles of learning was leading to segregation. Katy Calloway, who has a child in the Montessori program, said four out of five students in traditional classes at the school are black while 62 percent of students in the Montessori program are white and 34 percent are black.

“Clearly diversity is found in the Montessori program,” she said.

Murray-LaSaine PTA President Shante Ellis, who has been pushing for nearly a year to keep traditional classes at the school, said following the board’s vote that she was disappointed with the group’s decision.

“We should want the best for all children regardless of where they live or how they learn,” she said.

Traditional classes will be phased out of Murray-LaSaine Elementary over the next six years with one grade per year beginning with kindergarten next school year. Parents who prefer their children attend traditional classes will be zoned to attend one of the island’s three other traditional elementary schools.