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Lowcountry Parent School Spotlight: East Cooper Montessori

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Jody Swanigan is the principal of East Cooper Montessori Charter School. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Students were out of their seats and collaborating on school work. Their desks were not in straight rows, but rather in semi-circles. The lights were dim in many of the classrooms, but the windows brought in plenty of natural sunlight. The teachers, two or three in each room, were walking around, helping students with school work, organizing small group discussions and all-in-all engaging the students in the lesson.

This was a day in the life of Montessori. And, on this particular day, it was spent at East Cooper Montessori Charter School, located on Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant.

There was a buzz in the air walking the halls of ECMCS. Children were eager to participate in their classes, and it was almost as if you could “feel” learning taking place. Younger children worked with older children (but only by a few years) in the same classroom, and there was a sense of camaraderie, or teamwork, if you will.

Engagement is certainly a theme at this school. There were even windows separating some of the classrooms and if you are into an “open concept,” come to ECMCS.

“The furniture all moves around,” explains Principal Judy Swanigan as she showed me how even some of the book shelves could be moved. “The ‘environment’ is actually another teacher, as we say with Montessori education.”

The Montessori method is defined as educating the child, who is the one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning, in a supportive, thoughtful and prepared learning environment.

By that definition, ECMCS fits the bill.

Swanigan, who is not just the principal, but also the founder of ECMCS, is a passionate supporter of the Montessori method.

She serves on the South Carolina Montessori Alliance Board of Directors and, since opening the school in 2003, has won a South Carolina Department of Education Palmetto Gold or Silver Award every year since.

Swanigan taught Montessori elementary students for 10 years before opening the school. She holds a bachelor’s degree and S.C. state certification in elementary education, Montessori certification at both the primary and elementary levels, plus a master’s degree and state certification in elementary school administration.

But, ECMCS comes from humble beginnings. She opened the school in a trailer back in 2003 with just 44 students in the I’On neighborhood.

“We had no office or copy machine,” Swanigan remembers. “But we quickly grew and needed another trailer.”

And, the growth kept on going. In 2007, they occupied a building in I’On and at that time had about 250 students in first through eighth grades. As the desire among parents for their children to experience a Montessori education grew, and as ECMCS’s waiting list lengthened, Swanigan knew that she needed even more space.

Finally in 2014, ECMCS was approved to occupy the space of the former Whitesides Elementary School on Rifle Range Road.

This move allowed them to accept 450 to 500 students.

Now completely renovated, ECMCS successfully occupies the space and Swanigan says, “there isn’t one spot in this school that we don’t utilize,” as she beams with pride with how far they have come.

The "charter" aspect of ECMCS means that it is a public school created by a group of parents, teachers or community members. It is a school of choice authorized by the Charleston County School District.

That means that ECMCS is accountable under CCSD, the South Carolina Department of Education and to the community it serves. Since it is a public school, no tuition is charged and it is open to anyone in the Charleston County area as a school choice option. There is a waiting list, and the selection is lottery-based.

Parents are an integral component of the school. There is a governing board with many parent members and all parents are required to complete volunteer hours.

EC Montessori

Students arrange their desks in a circle at East Cooper Montessori Charter School. The school's environment fosters learning, educators say. 

They currently serve 450 students in classes of mixed ages from pre-k through eighth grade. There are 23 total teachers, and all classrooms have at least two teachers. This allows for a 1:13 student/teacher ratio.

Nikki Hollander, assistant principal, explains, “We operate on an ability-based structure. We have first-, second- and third-graders together; fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders together and then seventh- and eighth-graders together.”

She went on to say that this structure garners better peer-to-peer interaction.

“You can watch the older students really light up and shine when they are helping some of the younger students,” Hollander says. “And it is great for the younger students, too, because they experience a positive peer relationship with children older than them. It really helps their confidence.”

Virginia Taxt, who teaches students in fourth through sixth grade at ECMCS, has been working with Swanigan since the days in the trailer. She says, “We have come a long way. I one hundred percent believe in the Montessori education experience and how it builds social skills and challenges these students in so many ways. It gives them a window as to what is coming in life when they get older and are in the real world.”

Taxt adds, “We teach them valuable time management skills and we recognize the importance of community involvement, among many other preparations for life in general.”

Abby Kazley has two children at ECMCS, Connor in third grade and Campbell in second grade. She says, “It is hands-on education, meeting the individual with where they are at. I wholeheartedly believe in the great education my children are getting here.”

Kazly, who also serves on the board, says she personally loves the community involvement aspect of the school.

“My children have come to really enjoy giving to others and now want to do many of the projects they did at school in our own home. It warms my heart,” she says.

Chase Sutcliffe is an eighth-grader at ECMCS, and he admits that the school has helped him in so many ways.

“Academically and socially, this school has been great for me. It has opened me to up to many new opportunities,” he said.

He participates in the school’s store, student council, the gift donation drive for the Florence Crittenton Home and My Sister’s House, and he is on the school’s archery team.

He also said he enjoys the middle school internship program, which exposes students to careers at an early age.

He will be entering high school in the fall, and when asked if he is nervous about the transition, he answered with an emphatic "no," as he feels well-prepared to tackle the road ahead.

Hollander explains that they realize that many of the public high schools will not practice the Montessori ways.

“We introduce more structured practices to our seventh- and eighth-graders so that they can get a feel for what it will be like,” she explains, adding that they have quizzes and utilize more textbooks at those grade levels.

Swanigan concludes saying that she keeps in touch with many of her former students, one of which works for her now as a teacher.

“A student of ours just came in last week. She is studying to join the FBI. We also have a former student that goes to Princeton, another one works for The Colbert Show and another one that lives in France now.”

She adds, “We teach them self-discipline, conflict resolution, how to plan and manage their time and countless other valuable tools. Once our students leave to go to high school, they are more than ready.”

For more information on ECMCS, visit www.ccsdschools.com/eastcooper or call them at 843-216-2883.