by Paul Bowers
The Charleston County School District Board of Trustees voted March 24 to make Hursey Elementary School a full Montessori program and expand it to include grades seven and eight.
As it stands today, Hursey is only a partial Montessori school, with some students attending traditional classrooms and others attending Montessori classes that feature hands-on learning and individualized lesson plans. Some parents in the Park Circle neighborhood have been calling for a Montessori expansion for years as the program's waiting list continued to grow.
"It's good to see that North Charleston is finally getting the opportunities that the other areas do," said Russ Patterson, a parent with a child in the Montessori program.
But during parental input meetings, the proposal proved controversial when some parents and board members compared it to gentrification, with the demands of white parents usurping those of Hursey's African-American population. Students from the traditional program in the Hursey attendance zone will likely be re-assigned to nearby schools including North Charleston Elementary School, which fared worse than Hursey on its latest state report card.
The Chronicle ran a blistering editorial two days after the vote: "The consequence of the Board's vote is black students will be uprooted from their neighborhood school and bused out to make room for the white 'upper crust' moving in," wrote Beverly Gadson-Birch.
But Hursey, a Title 1 low-income school, is majority-black in both its traditional and Montessori programs. And PASS test data (see page 9) presented to the board showed that African-American students in Hursey's Montessori program fared better than their traditional school counterparts on the English Language Arts and Math sections of the standardized test.
The hotly contested 5-4 vote overturned a previous 4-4 tie vote in January 2013, when board members Michael Miller, Chris Collins, Elizabeth Moffly, and Tom Ducker voted to keep Hursey a dual school with both traditional and Montessori programs. Collins, who has children in both programs at Hursey, argued then that the dual program created "the unique culture at the school." But the two-in-one setup also forced the district to spend more money per student at Hursey than at single-program elementary schools. As of 2013, the district spent $9,707 per student at Hursey, compared to $8,614 per student at nearby North Charleston Elementary.
The four nay votes remained the same this time around. Board member Craig Ascue, who was absent from the January 2013 vote, served as the tiebreaker this time by voting in favor of the measure.