Two first-graders sit at a table reading. A few steps away, another kneels on a rug and practices his addition skills. At the next table, a second-grader forms a chain of flashcards to make compound words, matching "sun" with "shine," and "rain" with "coat."
"Sometimes I call it organized chaos," said Kim Fields, who teaches the Montessori program at Beaufort Elementary School. The program emphasizes hands-on learning in a multi-age classroom. Students learn at their own pace.
Twenty first- and second-graders are enrolled in the first year of the program, which was placed at Beaufort Elementary to help fill seats at the school; 12 of the 20 students transferred from elsewhere in the district or from private Montessori programs.
It is one of 10 programs in the Beaufort County School District accepting transfer students for next school year, when it's expected to double in size. The 20 students currently enrolled will stay in their classroom with Fields as their teacher; 20 more will work with a new teacher in an adjoining room.
Beaufort Elementary principal Jennifer Morillo said she already has received seven applications; forms are available on the school district's website and are due by March 16.
The program works best for self-motivated, independent students and parents who encourage those traits, she said.
"You've got to be a parent who's comfortable allowing your kid to go into the refrigerator, grab the milk off the top shelf and pour it into a cup," Morillo said. "You've got to let your child be an experiential learner, a risk-taker. They lead their own learning."
Students in the Montessori program choose a lot of their activities. They have several "must-dos" each day -- such as math, reading exercises or cursive practice -- but they choose the order in which they will complete the tasks and work at their own pace.
Having students doing so many different things keeps Fields busy. She doesn't make one lesson plan for the whole class -- she must tailor her teaching to each child. Additionally, she has to make sure all students are completing tasks and challenging themselves.
Working at their own pace means students can learn skills in a different order than they might in a traditional classroom. It also means the students must learn to manage their time.
Cade Fisher, 7, said he knows he has to accomplish all his "must-dos" first, before he moves on to lessons he considers more fun.
Abigail Henry, 7, said she sets aside more time for some math lessons because she knows they tend to take longer.
Plans call for adding a Montessori program for fourth- and fifth-graders in 2013-14 so the students can finish their elementary years with the Montessori curriculum.
Typically, Montessori classrooms are made up of a three-year span of ages. Morillo said adding a sixth grade to the classroom isn't likely, though, because the school serves students only through fifth grade.
Darcie Patrick, the director of the Sea Pines Montessori Academy, consulted with the district before Beaufort Elementary began its program. She said she would encourage the district to consider adding a sixth grade, because the three-year age span allows for better interaction and child-to-child teaching.
"It's like you've been served the most amazing dinner but you leave before dessert," Patrick said. "That doesn't change the fact that you've had an amazing dinner. But it's dessert."
The Beaufort Elementary program faces another challenge that private Montessori programs might not face. Its students must take several benchmark and standardized tests throughout the year.
Morillo said school officials have looked to several of South Carolina's 20 other public Montessori programs to determine how to make the program fit state mandates.
Morillo said the standardized tests are being used to give Fields a way to identify areas in which students need more help.
After nearly a year of Montessori, both Morillo and Fields said they're looking forward to the program's growth.
"This year the bulk of the group had never had Montessori before," Fields said. "In the second year, they will be the teachers. They will help model and teach each other."
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.