Public Montessori in the Low Country
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Editor’s note: From time to time, the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector gets inquiries about how to start a new public Montessori school. It’s a hard question, because the full answer is something like, “Spend a year figuring out what the possibilities are in your state and district, and deciding if this is really something you want to do. Then spend at least another year planning, preparing, getting allies and stakeholders on board, before you are even close to launching.”
Yet Charleston County has gone from no public Montessori to six schools in the last 24 years, along a variety of avenues:
- a private Montessori school converting to a district choice program
- a private Montessori school converting to a district-authorized charter
- a district-driven conversion of four conventional district schools to Montessori choice programs
Here, Rachel Young, Montessori Lead Consultant for the district, traces the history of this growth.
1997 had its share of noteworthy events: the movie “Titanic” was released, the first Harry Potter book was published, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and the Teletubbies were unleashed. But for the parents and students in the Charleston County School District (CCSD, at 50,000 students the second-largest district in South Carolina), one of the most noteworthy was that the district opened its first public Montessori school. Montessori Community School opened its doors with 65 students and three classrooms: one primary, one lower elementary, and one upper elementary.
Montessori Community School (MCS) had originally been a private Montessori school until Kim Hay, parent and board member, decided that in order to be accessible to more students, “We just needed to become a public school.” Fortunately for Hay, the CCSD superintendent at the time, Chip Zullinger, was a catalyst for change, and he was very interested in bringing parent-driven school choice options to the district. MCS became one of those school choice options.
However, it was not an easy process, as Hay found out. Everything had to be invented from scratch: the lottery process for admission, budgeting, busing…you name it, had to be thought through and planned out. Hay did all of this work with the district’s liaison, Barbara Hess. Hess’s message to Hay was, “If you can figure it all out, I’ll bring it to the CCSD board for approval.” Hay took advantage of the positive climate within the district for her ideas and presented and pushed for elements of Montessori education that Montessorians would consider non-negotiables.
Hay got the district to agree to fund three-year-olds so that the primary classroom had the three-year age span, and sixth grade was added to the upper elementary for the same reason. She insisted that classrooms needed the full complement of Montessori materials and Montessori trained teachers. She informed the district that they would not be issuing traditional grades and they would be using a different format for their report card. Amazingly, the district agreed to all of this and Montessori Community School of Charleston was born.
A few years later, across the peninsula in Mount Pleasant, another public Montessori school was in the works. Jody Swanigan, a long time Montessori teacher, was looking to do something similar to what Hay had done at MCS albeit through a different route. Swanigan, along with parent support, was looking to take the Montessori of Mount Pleasant Elementary School, a private school, through the charter process to become the first public charter Montessori school in CCSD. In 2003, the Charleston County School District approved five public charter schools within the district and East Cooper Charter Montessori School was one of them. Swanigan’s school started in a humble trailer with just three Lower Elementary classrooms and 77 students. In successive years, East Cooper Charter Montessori School would expand to offer programs from three years old through eighth grade, becoming the largest public Montessori school in the district.
In 2006, LaDene Conroy, the principal at Malcom C. Hursey, was approached by the CCSD superintendent, Dr. Nancy McGinley, with the idea of transitioning Hursey’s traditional program to a Montessori program. Conroy threw herself into the process, even taking the same Montessori teacher training that her teachers were enrolled in. From there, Conroy and McGinley began to envision a plan where all students throughout the district could access Montessori education. But this would mean opening a lot more schools. School leaders began to realize that there was no lack of parent support, and there was no lack of students, but there was a great lack of Montessori certified teachers.
To resolve this issue, Dr. Ginny Riga, the South Carolina Department of Education Montessori Coordinator, along with Jody Swanigan and members of the South Carolina Montessori Alliance (SCMA), petitioned the State legislature to approve an alternate route for teacher candidates to obtain a South Carolina educator certificate through Montessori training. In 2010 the state legislature approved a bill for this alternate certification. If teacher candidates held a Bachelor’s degree or higher from a regionally accredited institution of higher education, completed a MACTE accredited training program and passed the required Praxis exams, they could be awarded a South Carolina educator certificate to teach in a public Montessori school only. This approval was key to solving the problem that Montessori principals wrestled with every hiring season: where to find qualified Montessori teachers. Now with the human resource issue resolved, CCSD could grow the additional Montessori schools that parents were demanding.
Three more schools opened in quick succession around the district. James Simons, a traditional school located in downtown Charleston, began to transition to Montessori in 2012. Then two more traditional elementary schools transitioned to Montessori: Murray-LaSaine on James Island in 2013, followed by Edith L. Frierson on Wadmalaw Island in 2018.
Today the Charleston County School District has a little more than 2,000 students enrolled in five district Montessori schools and one charter. Five of the six schools span 3K-8th grade and the newest Montessori school, Edith L. Frierson, will also be 3K-8th grade when its transition to Montessori is complete.
So, what does the future hold for public Montessori in the Charleston County School District? To be completely honest, this has been a tough year to be thinking about the future when there were so many challenges in the present to address. However, despite the challenges of teaching in the midst of a pandemic, the Charleston County School District administration has done an admirable job of preserving the uniqueness of the Montessori classroom environments while keeping the safety of its students and staff at the forefront. Yes, the classrooms have a different look and feel with plexiglass dividers, masks and social distancing. Circle time just isn’t the same when your students are spread out all over the classroom. But Montessori teachers have done what they always do—adjust, and meet the needs of their students.
As we look forward to a post-pandemic world and Montessori teachers look forward to returning to some normalcy in their classrooms, there will undoubtedly be even more opportunities for public Montessori education within the Charleston County School District. The county is seeing an unprecedented surge in population, which might have something to do with our beautiful weather, gorgeous beaches and fascinating city. With this new surge, there will certainly continue to be a demand for public Montessori education and the district will respond and expand its public Montessori offerings as needed.
In 2023, Malcom C. Hursey Montessori School will move into a brand-new building and will increase its enrollment from 400 to 600 students, becoming the largest Montessori school in the district. There has been talk for some time among Montessori parents about asking the district for a public Montessori high school option. Although that option is just in the visioning stage, it is clear that the Charleston County School District is committed to championing and growing high quality authentic Montessori programs.
The future is bright and hopeful for public Montessori in CCSD: “Within the child lies the fate of the future.”