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Montessori At James Simons Proving Successful

By Barney Blakeney

Originally Published March 25, 2015

   Quenetta White is effervescent as she strides the hallways and stairwells of James Simons Elementary School in downtown Charleston. Her effervescence is an outward sign of the exuberance she feels about being principal at Constituent District 20’s only Montessori school. She’s helping to break new ground and she loves it.
   James Simons was one of four downtown schools whose students were temporarily transferred to other campuses as their facilities were renovated beginning in 2011. She became principal in 2012 before the school moved back to its downtown home last year.
   During the interim, parents were asked what they wanted their new school to become. For years the predominantly Black school had experienced decline both in enrollment and student performance. But as the upper peninsula’s only elementary school in the racial demographically changing North Central neighborhood, many parents wanted the school to implement the innovative Montessori program.
   Montessori has a dubious distinction in Charleston County School District. It has a reputation for dividing Black and white residents. A Montessori program already had been implemented at Mitchell Elementary School on the west side, but was having only marginal success. Parents asked and district officials moved the program to James Simons where it has taken off by leaps and bounds. And it is proving to be an anomaly as far as Montessori goes.
   When James Simons left the peninsula, its enrollment was just over 250 students and was almost totally Black. Now, the school that serves students PK-6 grades has about 315 students enrolled and its enrollment is about 20 percent white. School officials say James Simons is a shining example of how challenged schools can be transformed into diverse learning centers that are attractive to parents.
   James Simons is disproving a perception that Black parents won’t opt for a Montessori education for their children. Initially James Simons was to phase in Montessori one grade level per year beginning last school year. But so many parents opted for Montessori only 14 students remain in traditional classes. Next year the school becomes full Montessori. And it will continue to grow. James Simons plans to add seventh and eighth grades soon.
   White says James Simons’ success is reverberating through the neighborhood. The number of neighborhood children attending has doubled to about 150 students since it returned to its home campus. 
   As the peninsula’s only public MOntessori school, she expects enrollment to soon reach its capacity of about 500 students.
  Housing dual programs in the same facility is difficult because the requirements are vastly different and administering two vastly different programs in one facility would be an administrative nightmare, she said. For parents who still want traditional classes for their children, Mitchell is only blocks away, she said. 
   But that’s a nightmare White says she likely won’t have, the community is fondly embracing James Simons’ new focus. Kids who live in the neighborhood and attend other schools slowly are coming back, she said. Montessori’s independent style of learning opens doors for students, she said, and the doors at James Simons are wide open as well.

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