A 40-year-old private school in northern Beaufort County could be forced to close this fall because of growing competition from public schools and declining enrollment, its administrators say.
Ironically, demand for a teaching method E.C. Montessori & Grade School helped popularize locally could be the reason.
E.C. Montessori's board of directors recently announced to parents and staff members that the school on Lady's Island could close if enrollment doesn't pick up next school year, educational director Laura Lopresto-McKeown said.
"There are lots of reasons we are in this position. ... It's expensive to provide an excellent Montessori education, and it has just become increasingly more and more expensive for us to run the school," Lopresto-McKeown said. "Mostly, people just aren't willing or capable of paying."
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The school was the first in northern Beaufort County to teach the Montessori method, which emphasizes student independence and discovery in mixed-age classrooms. Enrollment peaked at about 125 students five years ago but has slipped to 50 this school year.
Charter schools, public school academic programs and the economy are largely responsible, school founder Anne Pollitzer said.
Several local charter schools -- Riverview Charter School, Bridges Preparatory School, and the soon-to-open Lowcountry Montessori School -- use a Montessori-like method.
The Beaufort County School District has also expanded its Montessori program at Beaufort Elementary School and likely will start a program in a southern Beaufort County school, superintendent Jeff Moss said.
"We've watched with great dismay as enrollment has declined," said Pollitzer, who founded the school with other parents in 1973. "If parents feel other schools are offering the same type and quality of education as we are at a price, we can't compete."
The school has laid off some teachers in recent years and tried to lower operating costs. However, if it cuts too many corners, the school won't be able to provide a quality education, Pollitzer said.
Nonetheless, the school has tried to hold the line on tuition, which is about $550 per month, according to Lopresto-McKeown.
E.C. Montessori currently has a toddler program for students 18 months to 3 years old, as well as a primary program for students 3 to 6 years old. It has had to eliminate elementary and middle school programs.
"Our school has been our own worst enemy because of the popularity of what we are doing and the success we have had and people trying to re-create it," Pollitzer said.
In southern Beaufort County, where there is not yet a public-school alternative, Hilton Head Island's Sea Pines Montessori Academy has not experienced a similar decline, head of school Melinda Cotter said. To the contrary, its enrollment is on the rise, and the school -- which opened in 1968 and offers pre-primary, primary, elementary and middle-school programs -- will add a new classroom in the coming school year.
Cotter attributes this mostly to population growth on Hilton Head and in Bluffton.
Pollitzer said she still believes there is a place for E.C. Montessori.
The school is accepting applications for next school year to gauge expected enrollment, said board co-president Amy Pollitzer, who is Anne Pollitzer's daughter-in-law. The school needs at least 36 students to stay open. She said Tuesday she was not immediately sure how many applications for next year the school has received.
Amy Pollitzer said the school hopes to recruit students by word-of-mouth, and it also recently revamped its website and is working to increase its social media presence.
"We are working every option possible, truly pursuing anything and everything," she said. "The school has educated thousands of children in this town, and we need those people who have loved the school and gone through E.C. Montessori to really get behind us."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
- Lady's Island school to celebrate 40 years during Montessori Education Week, February 25, 2013
- New Montessori charter school approved for Beaufort County, July 30, 2013
- Beaufort County charter school enrollment continues to increase, February 14, 2014
- Montessori program at Beaufort Elementary expanding: The program could be added at other locations as district looks to increase choices, February 1, 2014
- E.C. Montessori & Grade School