Montessori, School-Choice, and Early-Childhood Education Eliminated by the District

Dear Editor:

At the most recent meeting of the Edgefield County School District Board of Education, the Board voted 5-2 (Mr. Bibbs and Ms. Hammond were the dissenting votes) to eliminate the Montessori program at Douglas Elementary. This decision robs us of the only school-choice program in the district, and cuts the only early childhood education program not specifically targeting at-risk children.

When we heard rumors that the Montessori program was to be eliminated, we arranged a meeting with Assistant Superintendent Strom and Superintendent Anderson in an attempt to determine if and why this information was being kept a secret. The rumors were confirmed at that meeting, but both administrators assured us that the process would not be rushed, and that there would be ample time for parental input, which would be carefully considered. Two weeks later, Superintendent Anderson brought the matter of cutting the Montessori program to the District School Board for a vote.

The result of our meeting was a 9 day flurry of activity that included a hastily assembled survey, and 2 opportunities for parents to meet with the principal of Douglas Elementary. At the second of those meetings, Principal Turner told the parents that the program had not been in place long enough for him to make any recommendation as to whether or not the program should continue. Five days later, Principal Turner recommended that the Montessori program be cut in favor of hiring a “Response to Intervention” instructor (RTI).

At that board meeting, neither the superintendent nor the principal appeared familiar enough with Montessori education to be able to answer questions from board members about the effectiveness of such programs. It would seem that neither individual had taken the obvious step of contacting any of the 24 school districts in the state that have Montessori programs. Faced with a lack of information, the Board elected to postpone their decision. The assistant superintendent, with a sense of urgency that she had assured us 2 weeks prior did not exist, advised the board that a decision on whether to hire the RTI would be required that evening. The Board granted the request and, remarkably, the newly hired RTI was visiting Douglas Elementary 2 weeks later.

At the next board meeting, data from 7 South Carolina studies (both short-term, and long-term, from many districts across the state, and all but one from Title 1 schools) were presented during the public comments portion of the meeting, showing that Montessori students outperformed students from traditional classrooms. These data received no mention during the Board’s subsequent discussion. Similarly, a laundry list of solutions to potential funding issues, garnered from discussions with administrators in other districts (who are continually expanding their Montessori programs to meet the ever-increasing enrollment demands), also was presented as a public comment, and also was not acknowledged during the discussion, with one exception. The option to retain just the primary class (3K-5K) was discussed, but that discussion was killed by an objection from Mr. Herrin, (who had arrived at the meeting just in time for the discussion, and subsequently  left before the board went into executive session), who noted that Mr. Turner would have to change his recommendation. When the question had been brought to Mr. Turner earlier in the discussion, he did not opt to change his request.

Superintendent Anderson’s justification for his desire to cut the program was that an RTI would have an immediate effect, making it a better alternative to waiting for the long-term effects of the Montessori program. There are 3 problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that the Montessori program is a school choice program, and therefore a district program, which means that Mr. Turner should not have had to choose between the Montessori program and an RTI. The second problem is that Superintendent Anderson’s “either/or” scenario suggests that the decision was constrained by budgetary issues, which would seem difficult to reconcile with the recent doubling of the School Board member’s salary having been inserted as a line item in the proposed budget. The third issue is perhaps the most damning. The choice of a supposed “quick-fix” over a long-term solution suggests that the administration is taking a tragically myopic view of the issues that the district is facing.

The most disturbing aspect of the discussion was Superintendent Anderson’s appeal to the board to approve Mr. Turner’s recommendation to cut the Montessori program, in which he stated that it does not matter how you present the information: facts are facts, and the information does not change. This contradicts not only decades of developmental and education research, but also the views he expressed to us 4 weeks prior to the meeting. Sadly, it is difficult to view the votes by 5 board members to cut the program as anything other than tacit approval for Mr. Anderson’s “one-size fits all” philosophy.

There are aspects of this process that should be of great concern to all parents in the district. We feel that had we not pushed the administration to notify the parents with children in the program, parents would only have heard about the cutting of the program after the fact.  Throughout the process Mr. Turner refused our requests to notify parents who had signed up for the program of the possibility that it would be cancelled. This speaks volumes about the value that the principal and district administration place on parental involvement. Even less encouraging is the appearance that this recommendation was made by Mr. Turner and Mr. Anderson without having sought any input from the school districts in South Carolina that have flourishing Montessori programs. Lastly, the school board is operating without any set criteria as to what information should be required in order to make decisions that align with the mission of the district when considering adopting or cutting programs. From our perspective, the board made their decision based only on the limited information Mr. Turner, Ms.  Strom, and Mr. Anderson wanted them to see, rather than exercising their authority to obtain the information that they thought pertinent to the decision.  It is our sincere hope that this is an anomaly, and not part of a pattern of reactive, short-term responses to the issues that are so critical to our children’s education.  Even if it is an anomaly, it is one that has completely eliminated school choice in the district, and severely limited our early childhood education options.

Derek and Mary Zelmer