To hear the way parents raised their voices in a meeting last Tuesday night about the Montessori programs at Malcolm C. Hursey Elementary School, you might think that their neighborhood, their way of life, and their children’s futures were on the line. And maybe they were.

“We are just as entitled to a full Montessori school, and that choice, as the parents in West Ashley and Mt. Pleasant and the peninsula,” said Louise Monteith, a mother of three children in Hursey’s Montessori program. “Our children are no less equal because we live in North Charleston.”

More than 100 parents packed the cafetorium at the low-income Title 1 school tucked away off a main road in the Park Circle neighborhood. Parents came to take sides in a debate over whether Hursey, which currently houses both a traditional school and a Montessori school, would follow through on a plan to go full-Montessori. The Montessori program, based on the methods that teacher Maria Montessori developed to teach poor students in a Rome tenement building in the early 20th century, offers individually tailored lesson plans in a unique classroom environment with few desks, lots of hands-on activities, and a broad age range.

The Charleston County School District Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote at its Jan. 28 meeting on whether to phase out traditional classes at Hursey. The district’s overarching plan, a set of goals called Vision 2016 that focuses on improving literacy and closing racial achievement gaps, includes a promise to “offer a portfolio of choices for families in each of our four zones, including Montessori, arts-infused, math and science, and single-gender schools and programs.” This fall, Murray-LaSaine Elementary on James Island and James Simons Elementary downtown will begin offering Montessori classes as well.

The current two-schools-in-one model at Hursey forces the district to hire additional teachers per student, and as a result, the district spends $9,707 per student there, compared to $8,614 per student spent at nearby North Charleston Elementary.

On the other hand, district Montessori liaison (and former Hursey principal) Ladene Conroy estimates that the average cost of buying materials and hiring a teacher and teaching assistant for a new Montessori classroom is about $100,000.

Proponents of a full Montessori program at Hursey point to an overwhelming demand in the district for Montessori education. Hursey’s Montessori program has 62 students on its waiting list for the 2013-2014 school year, and West Ashley’s long-running public Montessori Community School of Charleston has 352 applications for the coming school year, of which only 32 will be accepted.

Opponents say eliminating the school’s traditional classes would displace students to other schools, cause traditional teachers to lose their jobs (they wouldn’t; their contracts are with the district and not with the school), and force some Hursey parents to send their children to two different elementary schools.

And then there’s the matter of race.

No one came out and said it during the meeting, but when school board member Elizabeth Moffly asked for a show of hands, the parents who supported keeping the dual program at Hursey were mostly black. The parents who supported making the switch to full Montessori were mostly white. Ironically, part of the school district’s stated rationale for promoting school choice options, according to a Powerpoint presentation at the Tuesday night meeting, is to “decrease racial segregation and isolation.”

Hursey is a majority-black school in both the traditional and the Montessori program. As of December 2012, the school’s traditional classes had 133 African-American students and 17 white students, while the Montessori program had 192 African-American students and 35 white students.

Edward White, a black parent who spoke at the meeting, has a daughter in the Montessori program and a son in the traditional program, and he’s glad to be able to make that choice. “One thing about minority boys is they need more structure,” White said, “and that tradition gives them more structure, a little more than Montessori.” (Others would disagree. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago educational consultant and author of There is Nothing Wrong with Black Students, has praised the Montessori model for black males.)

After the meeting, White said he had lived in the neighborhood for a long time and previously taught in Hursey’s traditional school program. “The community’s changing, because you look at the houses that are coming over, you know, they’re not low-income, they’re not middle-income,” White said. “They want the best for their kids, but you can’t come in and say, ‘OK, forget about the rest of the kids, we want to make this our Montessori.’ It shouldn’t be that way.”

Different Strokes

It’s easy to see why Montessori appeals to some parents. Montessori school alumni Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the guys who founded Google, told ABC’s Barbara Walters in a 2004 interview that they credit Montessori education as a major factor in their success. “I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit different,” Page said on the heels of his company’s $85-a-share IPO.

At Hursey, the Montessori teachers have to teach to the same state standards as in any other South Carolina public school; they just go about it differently.

“I’m always on the ground,” says Melissa Gray, who teaches at the Primary Montessori level. Her classroom features plenty of open floor space and rugs where 3- to 5-year-olds scoot from station to station in a self-paced learning environment. It’s remarkably quiet. At one end of the room, children working on fine motor skills fold napkins, scoop rice from one bowl to another, and practice using chopsticks. Along another wall, low bookshelves hold cards with sandpaper letters that students trace with their fingers while saying their sounds aloud.

“We don’t use grades, like letter grades. We use assessments,” Gray says. “That’s the No. 1 thing we use in Montessori, is we constantly observe what the children are working on. And when we see them master a lesson, we know that it’s time for them to move up to the next skill.”

Montessori education isn’t necessarily better than traditional, pencil-and-paper, sit-at-a-desk instruction. But it’s definitely different. At the Upper Elementary level, which includes the equivalent of fourth- through sixth-graders, teacher Debbie Clem describes a question that a student asked during a lesson on the Transcontinental Railroad: Why did they call it transcontinental if it only stretched from the Midwest to California? “It doesn’t go across the country, let alone the continent,” the student said. In another classroom, a teacher might have replied, “That’s just how it is.” But Clem decided to let the students stage a debate. They ultimately decided that the name was OK, but a minority of students brainstormed alternative monikers, including “Semicontinental Railroad.”

The Montessori program came to Hursey partly because the old system wasn’t working. From 2005 to 2011, the school earned the lowest possible rating, At Risk, on its report cards from the S.C. Department of Education. In 2012, with standardized test scores improving, the school finally bumped up to a Below Average rating, scoring just a few points shy of Average. What changed? For one thing, the school started offering the Montessori program in the 2006-2007 school year. The school phased out fifth grade classes in the traditional program in 2009-2010, on track with the district’s plan to do away with traditional classes entirely, but the transition halted in 2010-2011 due to a funding shortfall.

Hursey’s Montessori program, technically called Montessori Children’s House, is considered a partial magnet. Like the nearby Chicora School of Communications or North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary, Hursey has a distinct academic focus, and federal law guarantees that children living within the school’s attendance zone can have a seat in the school. Once those seats are filled, any remaining seats are offered to current students’ siblings, students elsewhere in the district’s North Zone, and then students from other parts of the district, in that order. Currently, 15 percent of students in the Hursey Montessori program are from outside the North Zone, including one whose mother drives her daughter to the school every morning from Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley.

The Montessori Boosters

When Charles and Louise Monteith found out that their youngest child, Henry, was performing ahead of his grade level as he entered kindergarten, they took a tour of Hursey and loved what they saw. Charles, who is black, works as a software engineer at SPARC, and he says the classroom environment reminds him of his workplace. “We don’t sit at desks. We have tables where we sit and we all collaborate when we work, and as a team we pick the projects that we work on,” he says. The Monteiths enrolled Henry in Hursey’s Montessori program, and then they moved their two older children to the Montessori from A.C. Corcoran Elementary.

The oldest Monteith child, Pat, is in the Upper Elementary group (4th-6th grade) now, and Louise doesn’t like her options for middle school when Pat finishes at Hursey. “They’re bad. They’re really bad,” Louise says. For the Monteiths’ attendance zone, Pat would go to Northwoods Middle School, a Below Average-rated school where 56 percent of students failed the English/Language Arts section of the PASS test last year. The Monteiths are holding out hope, though. If the school district goes through with its plans, Hursey will actually expand to include a Montessori Middle program for seventh and eighth graders.

The Monteiths are part of what appears to be a vocal majority in favor of the full Montessori plan. The school’s Neighborhood Planning Team, a group of school staff and community members, backed the Montessori idea from the beginning, and last year, a survey of the school’s parents found that 144 favored either switching straight to full Montessori or phasing traditional classes out for three years, while 87 parents favored sticking with the current dual-track program. In other words, the apparent divide in the show-of-hands vote at the parents’ meeting may have been misleading: Even if the parents of all 52 white students at Hursey had voted yes for Montessori, that still left 92 nonwhite parents who voted for full Montessori.

School board member Rev. Chris Collins, a vocal opponent of phasing out traditional classes at Hursey, says he mistrusts the parent survey because 163 parents didn’t respond and because the survey was phrased to give Montessori the advantage, with two pro-Montessori options and one pro-dual-track option. Several parents at the Tuesday night meeting echoed Collins’ opinion.

In December, Charles Monteith wrote an e-mail to Collins and the rest of the school board to explain why he supports full Montessori at Hursey. He started the e-mail by writing, “I am an African-American parent of a 5th-grader, a 3rd-grader, and a 1st-grader enrolled in the Montessori program at Hursey Elementary.” In the racially charged debate, Monteith’s race was not an insignificant detail to mention.

“Your letter sounds good, but it certainly is not filled with facts of truth,” Collins wrote in reply. “Why are you telling us that you are an afican american? [sic] What bearing has that on educating neighborhood children in their local school? I know somebody put you to write this letter.”

No, Monteith assured Collins in another e-mail, no one had put him up to it.

“That’s what really surprised me in [Collins’] response to me,” Monteith says. “He was rude overall, but he felt like I was being motivated by something other than the fact that my children attended the school.”

White Flight

Social scientists expend a great deal of energy studying the movements of the migratory and mercurial bird known as the white person, and with good reason. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the U.S. integrated its schools and the walls of segregation came tumbling down, a significant proportion of white families moved from the cities to the suburbs. The effects of this migration on school demographics can still be seen in many inner-city schools and districts. In 1987, University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson found that schools with more than 30 percent black students experienced a greater loss of white students than schools with fewer than 30 percent black students.

What would happen if white families had a way of fleeing to more prestigious schools without the expense of relocating to a new neighborhood or paying private-school tuition? Enter the school choice movement, which grew in popularity after the nation’s first public charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992.

The school-choice-as-white-flight theory has a glaring flaw, though: Minority families appear to be flocking to school choice even more than white families. A 2003 study by researchers at the Civil Rights Project (Erica Frankenberg and Chungmei Lee) found that non-charter public schools were 59 percent white, whereas public charter schools were only 43 percent white.

But when Frankenberg and Lee looked at racial compositions of individual schools, they found that 83 percent of white charter school students attended majority-white schools (more than 50 percent white), and a full 22 percent of white charter school students attended schools that were at least 90 percent white. This last figure, the researchers noted, was “a rather high percentage due to the fact that the majority of students in charter schools are minority students.”

Much of the research on school choice focuses on charter schools, but some sociologists worry that the entire school choice movement — including Montessori programs like at Hursey Elementary — could become a tool of white flight if left unchecked by regulation. In 2005, University of Georgia sociologist Linda Renzulli crunched some numbers similar to the ones in the Civil Rights Project study and published a study titled “School Choice, Charter Schools, and White Flight” in the academic journal Social Problems. In the paper, she wrote, “Phrased most starkly, charter schools left to their own devices may promote racial segregation in the public schools.” After considering state-level analyses of charter school programs, she wrote, “In sum, state analyses largely suggest that charter schools create greater segregation of whites and nonwhites. They do indeed serve minorities, but mostly in segregated contexts.”

In South Carolina, where New York real estate tycoon and school-choice advocate Howard Rich regularly pumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into local political campaigns, school choice reforms always warrant careful scrutiny. Nancy McGinley, superintendent of the Charleston County School District, says she understands the concerns of researchers like Renzulli. “I have seen what that author is talking about,” McGinley says. Once, in a predominantly black Philadelphia neighborhood, she visited a public charter school and found that it was majority white. But the good thing about South Carolina schools, she says, is that “enrollment is supposed to reflect the countywide diversity.”

Under the state’s Charter School Act of 2005, if a charter school’s enrollment differs from that of its district by more than 20 percent, the school board can revoke the school’s license if it finds that the school has been recruiting in a discriminatory manner. Still, glaring instances of segregation persist. In the 2010-2011 school year, for example, the Charleston County School District had 49 percent white students and 51 percent nonwhite students, but in Mt. Pleasant’s tony I’On neighborhood, East Cooper Montessori School was 93 percent white. At the other end of the spectrum, Apple Charter School on James Island was 98 percent non-white.

On balance, McGinley says, the district has some traditional schools that aren’t terribly diverse — like North Charleston High School (94 percent non-white) and Moultrie Middle School (79 percent white) — and they reflect the demographics of their attendance zones. “I don’t know that charter schools are more out of balance than some other schools,” McGinley says.

The Elephant in the Room

After the meeting at Hursey Elementary School, Edward White and another parent, Dave Klugman, lingered to talk things over. White had spoken in favor of the dual program during the meeting, but Klugman, who is white and has two children in Hursey’s Montessori program, was more interested in talking about the racial divide he’d noticed in the show-of-hands vote. It was, he said, “the elephant in the room.”

“I moved to Park Circle because it’s a diverse community, and I’ve been seeing this … It’s not tearing the community apart, but there are definitely some intense conversations going on,” Klugman said.

“You have to talk about it,” White agreed. White also said he sometimes sensed a lack of cultural understanding in the classroom. “Teachers, you’ve got to be open to learn more about the culture,” he said. “I’ve seen teachers from over there in Mt. Pleasant that don’t have a clue about what’s going on over here, and they’re trying to teach, and they can’t reach the kids because they don’t understand the culture.”

The crowd was thinning out. Children were waving goodbye to the friends they’d see again in the morning, and as families stepped out into the mild winter night, the chattering din that had filled the room began to subside. Klugman, still talking to White, reflected on the discourse they had just heard.

“It’s bigger than just us,” Klugman said. “It’s about black and white relations everywhere, I think. This is a little microcosm of it, but I see it. I see it in my life.”

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