As the Beaufort County School District looks to expand its academic programs of choice throughout the county, one school is ahead of the game.
Starting next school year, Beaufort Elementary School will expand its Montessori program, adding an additional lower-elementary class to accommodate growing interest from parents.
"It has been so popular that we have to expand," principal Gary McCulloch said. "We're very fortunate to have a supportive board and innovative district that wants to expand choice because that is what's best for kids."
The school has more than 30 students on the waiting list for the program. Montessori curriculum includes a hands-on approach to learning in multi-aged classrooms, where students can work at their own pace, often independently.
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With this expansion, the school will now have three lower-elementary classes -- which serve students in grades one through three -- and one upper-level class for fourth- and fifth-graders. Because of the increasing Montessori enrollment in the lower grades, the school might have to add a second upper-elementary section, McCulloch said.
Beaufort Elementary -- the only school in the district with a Montessori program -- has space for another 20-student class, McCulloch said.
The school will have to hire and train another teacher for the program and purchase classroom materials -- startup costs that amount to about $50,000, according to McCulloch. However, once the class is underway, maintaining the program does not cost more than a traditional class, he added.
Lower-elementary Montessori teacher Kimberly Fields said she had the first and only class in the program when it started several years ago.
"As years have gone by, I've noticed a lot of children going through the program and a lot of interest growing in the program," Fields said. "I love the whole idea of schools having choice programs because it shows the district really is thinking about the different and best ways for students to learn."
The "program of choice" accepts students from outside Beaufort Elementary's attendance zone. All are from northern Beaufort County, McCulloch said, but four students from Bluffton are on the waiting list.
As its leaders seek ways to add programs of choice throughout the district, they will consider a Montessori program at a school in southern Beaufort County, if there is demand for it, superintendent Jeffrey Moss said.
"What we're trying to accomplish with our choice movement is to provide more opportunities for parents beyond what a traditional school would have," he said.
Moss said the best environment for a Montessori program is a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school. The new elementary school being built in Bluffton would have that grade configuration, while Robert Smalls Middle School in northern Beaufort County will add elementary grades next school year.
However, Moss said the district would not remove the program from Beaufort Elementary.
The district will begin gathering parent input on different choice programs in the spring, Moss said.
Board member Geri Kinton, co-chairwoman of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, said that if a student starts a program such as Montessori or arts-infused curriculum in elementary school, the district should strive to make it available in middle and high schools, too.
"While we want schools to have their own identity, we need to make sure we are serving the students first with the programs we offer and not the schools," Kinton said. "But I definitely think parents want more choices for how their children are educated."
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