In one year, Melissa Florence's daughter has gone from a second-grader apprehensive about reading and math to a confident third-grader shaping her own lesson plans.
Her daughter, Sophia, is one of about 50 first- through third-graders enrolled in Beaufort Elementary School's Montessori program, which will expand to include upper-elementary grades next school year because of interest from parents, according to school officials.
"This means that parents whose first- through third-graders are in Montessori now will be able to complete their elementary grades using that instructional option" in fourth and fifth grade, principal Jennifer Morillo said.
Beaufort is one of 24 South Carolina districts that offer a public school Montessori option and will be one of 18 that offer an upper elementary program. An informational meeting will be at 6 p.m. Feb. 21 at Beaufort Elementary for interested parents and students.
Any Beaufort County student can apply. Applications are available on the district's website and must be submitted by March 8, Morillo said.
The Montessori method emphasizes a hands-on "discovery approach" in multi-aged classes, in which students work at their own pace, often independently. Montessori teachers are trained to guide students to explore their surroundings and help them think creatively, Morillo said.
The program works best for self-motivated, independent students whose parents encourage those traits, she said.
Students choose many 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. At the end of the week, students reflect on their progress and suggest steps for reaching new goals.
Working at their own pace means students can learn skills in a different order than they might in a traditional classroom. It also means they must learn to manage their time, Morillo said.
Students also learn from one another. The multi-aged classes encourage older students and those who are more proficient in a given subject area to help younger students or those who may be struggling, Florence said. That flexibility, individual attention and peer support has made her daughter more comfortable in the classroom and more confident in ther studies, she said.
"She is engaged in her own learning and is excited about new things that they do, and is challenged," Florence said. "My hope is she will further gain confidence and an ability to manage her own education, so as she gets into high school and college, she's getting the most out of that and recognizes the possibilities of peer resources and working independently."
The program opened last year with a waiting list of about 30 students, and Morillo expects another waiting list for next school year.
She said the school will hold an enrollment lottery in late March, the details of which are not yet available.
Parents for all of the program's 11 third-graders have said they intend to enroll their children in the upper-elementary Montessori class, meaning about 14 spaces will be available.
That would also free up 11 seats for first- through third-grades in the lower-elementary classes next year, Morillo said.