In the early 1970s, Anne Pollitzer and a handful of parents found few options beyond traditional public schools when it came time to send their children to school.
Beaufort County had no public preschool. The closest half-day kindergarten class was at Mossy Oaks Elementary in Beaufort, which was too far away for the folks on St. Helena Island.
Pollitzer, a working mother, and other parents were looking for something more than day care. They wanted a classroom environment that encouraged their 4- and 5-year-olds to seek self-discovery, learn independently and respect others.
So in 1973, Pollitzer founded Eleanor Christensen School, named after Pollitzer's mother, Eleanor Christensen, who was an educator in Beaufort schools from 1952 to 1964. Originally offering a traditional elementary education, the school on Lady's Island is now staffed by Montessori-trained teachers, providing instruction for children from ages 18 months to 13 years. The name was changed in 1981 to E.C. Montessori & Grade School.
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"At that time ... there was a crying need for early childhood education," Pollitzer said.
When the school opened, there was only one other Montessori school in the county, Sea Pines Montessori Academy on Hilton Head Island. It was founded in 1968 by Mary Fraser, wife of Sea Pines developer Charles Fraser. Like E.C. Montessori, the school was created because of a need for early childhood education, said its head of school, Melinda Cotter.
Today, the area has four Montessori options, including one public school.
E.C. Montessori celebrates its 40th anniversary Friday as part of Montessori Education Week. The Sea Pines school and May River Montessori School in Bluffton also are celebrating the week.
"Pollitzer and others pioneered Montessori education in Beaufort, creating a legacy of fostering a love of independent learning in more than 2,000 students that have walked through our doors," E.C. Montessori director Terri Powell said. "And (that) has led parents to take from the Montessori philosophy and adapt it to expand choices among public schools."
The Montessori method emphasizes a hands-on "discovery approach" in multi-aged classes, beginning at age 3, in which students work at their own pace, often independently. Teachers are trained to guide students to explore their surroundings and help them think creatively, according to school officials.
And its popularity has spread to local public schools.
Beaufort County School District is one of 24 in the state that offers a public Montessori option. The method is used at Beaufort Elementary School, which will expand instruction to include its upper-elementary grades next school year.
"Parents are looking for more choices, especially at the early childhood level, and Montessori offers flexibility in how children learn," district chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads said.
Pollitzer, who retired in 1992 after 20 years as E.C.'s administrator, said she's proud of the private, nonprofit school's success and sees a bright future for it.
"It has had ups and downs (including a fire in 1985 that left it with one classroom) -- fat times and thin times -- but it has always managed to continue providing a valuable impact to Beaufort County that I'm happy to see continue," Pollitzer said.