Whitesville adds Montessori program to help boost interest in school in 'no man's land'

Montessori student Sophia Whitley helps a classmate finish a pattern recently at Whitesville Elementary School. The Montessori program is the first of its kind in Berkeley County’s public schools.

Sophia Whitley, sitting on a beige mat, builds a tower with blocks.

Nearby, Joshua Wallace makes a flower pattern from foam shapes. Teacher Leila O'Neal sits on yet another mat with Gracin Boyd, introducing her to color tablets.

Twenty-five children, 25 activities.

But one thing that's missing is noise. The children speak in whispers or not at all as they work.

"There are 25 different things going on and barely a peep," said Whitesville Elementary School Principal Julia Taylor.

O'Neal sees it another way.

"Actually, it's a little louder than I like, but we're still new at this," she said.

This is a Montessori class for 3- to 5-year-olds.

It's the first such program in Berkeley County's public schools, but Taylor hopes it will breathe new life into the 900-plus-student school that sits in the middle of Berkeley County.

"We see it as a way to draw people back to Whitesville," she said. "We're in a sort-of no man's land here. We aren't in Moncks Corner and we aren't in Goose Creek. We have a lot of special education classes, so we're not always going to be able to make Adequate Yearly Progress because it's just not possible. The result is that families could opt out of sending their children to school here. We're hoping that putting this program in place will make people opt back in."

The program first was suggested by the School Improvement Council a few years ago, but it took time to get the blessing of the Berkeley County School Board to implement it. Montessori materials to outfit the classroom cost about $25,000.

The class has seven 3-year-olds and nine each of 4- and 5-year-olds, who were chosen by lottery. The program is limited to people who live within the school's attendance lines.

"For every child here, we had two or three more who wanted to be," Taylor said.

Because many people in the area weren't familiar with Montessori education, parents had to attend an awareness program before their child's name could be entered in the lottery.

Parents of accepted students had to agree to attend two training sessions in the fall and two in the spring, and to observe the class once each semester.

While everyone else is new to the program, both O'Neal, who already was employed by the school as the Title 1 coordinator, and her assistant, Sadaria Hawkins, have experience with it.

Hawkins, who lives in St. Stephen, was for 11 years employed by the Montessori School of Mount Pleasant, a drive that took her more than 90 minutes each way.

"I just believe in it that much," she said. "Coming from a traditional background, I see it as a different way that you can teach children."

Tuition of $80 per week, or $2,880 for the year, is charged for 3- and 4-year-olds to pay Hawkins' salary and benefits. Five-year-olds don't pay because kindergarten is state-mandated education.

"I wish they didn't have to pay, but we'll take it any way we can get it," said O'Neal, who has been involved with Montessori teaching for more than 25 years.

The school's three-year plan calls for adding a 6- to 8-year-old class next year.

"We have nine kindergartners who will need a place to go," Taylor said.

A decision has not been made on whether the class will be filled with 7- and 8-year-olds who are new to the Montessori method.

A second class for children ages 3-5 will be added the year after that.

"That's as far as we've dared to dream," Taylor said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or on Facebook.

Montessori education was founded in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to become a physician. She based her methods on scientific observation of children's learning processes. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Montessori designed a "prepared environment" in which children could choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.

Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses. Children in Montessori classes learn at their own individual pace and according to their own choice of activities. Montessori classes place children in three-year age groups, forming communities in which the older children share their knowledge with the younger ones.