By Charlie Morrison I Editor
The recent debate over the future of education at Murray-LaSaine Elementary School (MLES) was finally brought to a hard-fought, emotional conclusion. On Monday night, the Charleston County School District (CCSD) Board of Directors voted to uphold their 2012 decision to implement in full the Montessori teaching method and philosophy at James Island’s Murray-LaSaine Elementary.
The Board’s 6-3 vote to resume the transition of the school to Montessori-only effectively closed the door on the debate over the school’s transition, but that didn’t stop the argument between parents of opposing viewpoints which continued in one case, all the way into into the adjoining parking garage.
Monday’s vote reaffirms the CCSD November, 2012 decision to transition the curriculum of the then under-attended, struggling school from that of a traditional public education curriculum to that of a full fledged Montessori school by 2021. The transition will phase in the Montessori programs over several years and assures that current traditional students will complete elementary grades through fifth grade. New students will only be accepted into the Montessori program at MLES, which will eventually serve area kids all the way up through middle school.
Before the CCSD Board had a chance to cast their vote on the matter however, the public exercised their right to be heard on the issue, and they did so en masse. The public commentary portion of the meeting was defined by the passion expressed on Monday, on both sides of the issue. The list of speakers was long. Nearly twenty individuals addressed the board and the packed house at 75 Calhoun St., each of whom took up the majority of the two-minute time allotted to them to speak their minds on that issue or any other. And speak their minds they did.
“We have four elementary schools on James Island. Two are overcrowded. One more I hear from parents tonight is too, that’s James Island Elementary,” stated Yolanda Gibbs, an outspoken opponent of the Board’s 2012 vote. “If we rid Murray-LaSaine of a traditional program are we assuming that all families coming to the community will choose the Montessori program?”
Meeting attendee Heather Blake too, was confused. “What is your reason for wanting to transition Murray-LaSaine to a Montessori school?” asked Blake, before turning to scripture to hammer home her point. She quoted Galatians 6:7-8 in saying “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption,” said Blake.
“When will (the) CCSD begin to plan for the future?” Gibbs stated when she took her turn addressing the Board earlier in the meeting. “I am a parent, I have a voice, I have stood before you for a year-and-a-half. We are back at square one. I sat on the Neighborhood Planning Committee. I know what I was told, and I know how it was presented.”
The Neighborhood Planning Committee was formed in February, 2012 and consisted of CCSD officials, parents, teachers and community members. They researched and disseminated information pertaining to a possible magnet program at MLES and on May 30, 2012, voted unanimously to accept the Montessori option for their community. At that time dissent was minimal.
A group of parents who supported the dual track program emerged in May of 2014, and began contesting the decision, claiming that the CCSD Board lied and never told them the school would be full Montessori. Members of this group swear that they were told Montessori would be implemented alongside traditional programming, an idea that came to be known as “dual track.”
On October 7, 2014 the Strategic Education Committee (SEC) voted to recommend that MLES remain dual track. That recommendation never made it to the CCSD Board, at least not before Election Day. School Board elections in November of 2014 brought change in the form of new Commissioners Kate Darby, Chris Staubes, and Eric Mack. In a 2-1 vote last Tuesday, the SEC’s recommendation was to go ahead with full Montessori transition as was originally designed.
“There are limitations (to running two programs simultaneously). The Montessori program cannot grow. There also is no room for middle school,” commented Interim Superintendent Michael Bobby at last Tuesday’s SEC meeting. CCSD Associate Superintendent Terri Nichols agreed. “The way to grow Montessori is to convert MLES to full Montessori all the way up through middle school,” stated Nichols.
The community has lacked representation throughout this entire process.” said Shante Ellis at the SEC meeting last Tuesday. Ellis was a member of the Neighborhood Planning Team that had voted unanimously for Montessori at MLES in 2012. In May 2014, she along with other concerned parents, approached the SEC to challenge the full transition decision, claiming that the CCSD Board had lied and did not spend enough resources informing the community of the implications of the transition. “When you all made the decision to convert ML into a Montessori program that was fine but it was against what the public actually asked for,” stated Ellis on Tuesday.
The debate between Montessori and non-Montessori programming at MLES has evolved over the past months to reflect racial tensions and the issue of diversity has become the predominant argument. “What I like is seeing all the different people come together throughout the community, and it’s so diverse, and different backgrounds, and they’re happy,” said CCSD Board member, Rev. Collins. “I’m afraid sometimes, when we push one program over the other one we tend to lose diversity and it can upset the community.”
Murray-LaSaine Elementary was started as a black school in the early 1900s, originally opened and operated as Cut Bridge School. Murray-LaSaine was born of the efforts of the schools principal during the 1950’s, Principal Albertha Johnston Murray. It was Murray who fought for dollars to fund the school from the South Carolina School Equalization Program, a program that was used to provide all schools, black and white, the same quality of facility and staff. The renovated building opened in 1956 as Murray-LaSaine Elementary and continued to matriculate predominately black students.
As of 2012 however, Murray-LaSaine no longer reflected the racial demographic on James Island, at least according to statistics conducted as part of the 2010 U.S. Census. The most recent census data shows that 82 percent of James Island residents are white, with 14 percent identifying themselves as black.
MLES’ Montessori classrooms are Caucasian to the tune of 62 percent, with 34 percent of the students being African-American. Currently, about four of every five student in the MLES traditional track are black.
Following Monday night’s marathon meeting and the subsequent vote in favor of resuming the Board’s viewed, vetted, and voted-upon plan to continue the transition to full Montessori at the school, disgruntled members of the opposing viewpoint were planning their next move. “If they want a fight, they’ll get a fight,” commented one Murray-LaSaine parent as she stormed away from the meeting. George Kugblenu, an outspoken adversary to the approved program warned of the potential ramifications of their action. “I can assure you that if you (the CCSD Board) go out and implement full Montessori, you will fight the people of James Island,” says Kugblenu.
Murray-LaSaine Elementary is located at the former campus of Stiles Point Elementary, located at 891 Mikell Dr. You can reach the school by calling 762-2765, stopping by their temporary Mikell Dr. campus, or on the web athttp://murraylasaine.ccsdschools.com.