Montessori open to all in group's plan

A public school where children of different ages learn together at their own pace using the Montessori methods of teaching: That's Kristin Bohan's vision for the charter school she and others are in the process of starting.

But first she'll have to explain to people what exactly Montessori is, which isn't easy.

"You really have to see it to understand it," Bohan said.

Walking through the classrooms at the Montessori School of Pawleys Island, you can get a pretty good idea.

Classes include children of varying ages. For example, the lower elementary class is made up of first-, second- and third-graders. Lessons are more tactile, with strings of beads used to illustrate multiplication tables. And students decide when they're going to do the lessons they need to do for that day.

"Freedom with limits," said Sarah Wilson, director of and teacher at the school.

"I don't have to tell them 'OK, it's time to do math.' They know what they have to get done for that day and they decide," she said.

Wilson and Bohan have said they've heard people call Montessori a "hippie" method of teaching, but Bohan doesn't see it that way.

"It just makes sense," she said. "Children are naturally curious and want to learn."

The Montessori method gives children the ability to learn things for themselves, Bohan said, and even how to take care of themselves.

She said when her daughter first began going to school there she didn't understand why she would come to the car with a dirty face.

"I was like, 'What is going on? Why aren't they wiping her face off?,'" she said. But she soon realized that her 2-year-old daughter was learning how and when to clean her own face.

"I thought, 'Oh, there is a method to all this,'" she said.

Bohan now wants to make the Montessori methods available to a larger segment of Georgetown County, not just people who can afford to pay the nearly $6,000 a year tuition for the private Montessori school.

The Coastal Montessori Charter School would be a public school for grades one through six and open to as many students as are interested.

Bohan and the planning committee is in the process of filling out the application that must first go to the S.C. Charter School Advisory Committee for its approval and then to the Georgetown County School District's Board of Education for its approval

Board Chairman Jim Dumm said the board will look closely at the group's charter before allowing it to start up in the district, noting that the district's last charter school "didn't have a very happy ending."

"The district learned a good bit," he said. "We're going to be very cautious."

The Harbor School for Arts and Sciences was a charter school for fourth- through eighth-graders in Georgetown from August 1998 to June 2000. The school district revoked the school's charter because of concerns about the school's financial future and academic concerns.

In 2004, the school board rejected an application from the Waccamaw Regional Academy Charter after concerns were raised about the school's budget and curriculum. That was after the S.C. Charter School Advisory Committee had approved the group's plans.

But Bohan said she has several reasons she thinks her group will be able to succeed in getting off the ground.

"We have a good product," she said. "And a number of people who have been involved with the [private] Montessori School are helping to form this school. We know how to run a school on a shoestring budget."

She said the group also feels a lot of support from people in the area and the district.

The group is about a third of the way through its application, and the next step will be to gauge the interest of the community via letters of intent, Bohan said.

"They're not a binding contract. They simply say if this charter school starts up I'll send my child there," she said. "That's how funding is determined."

Once the group has a nose count on how many students it expects, it can begin to plan the building.

Bohan said some members of the group have agreed to buy some land for the school, build a building and rent it to the school.

She said in the next few weeks the group will likely decide on one of the four pieces of land it is considering.

"I really believe we're gonna pull this off," she said. "I think we've done our due diligence with what this is going to involve."