Choosing a school

At Murray-LaSaine Elementary School on James Island, a fresh focus is breathing new life into a program with a rich community heritage.

"We're brand new," Principal Sherry Peterson said, even though "Murray-LaSaine was started in the 1950s and has been a heart of this community for a long while."

The "brand new" aspect is the school's focus on Montessori education, a teaching approach developed in Italy at the turn of the century that emphasizes student independence and mixed age classrooms, where older students mentor their younger classmates.

"It is very individualized education," Peterson said. "You might see small group instruction. There is a lot of choice built into it. The children are very much a part of their own learning. Every kid is different and we need to meet them where they are."

The change is designed to help the public school bounce back from shrinking enrollment.

"At one point, it was below 200," Peterson said. "They selected Montessori, and this is our very first year. We are diving in with both feet."

However, Peterson also noted that the school will continue to offer "traditional programs as well."

Peterson said the Charleston County School District has been especially cognizant of the need to offer choices, while maintaining the connection that comes from neighborhood schools.

"It is very important to me that the existing community not feel pushed out by this new program," Peterson said. "There are generations of families who have gone here. It's really important to maintain the heritage that has been here."

The gradual shift to a Montessori program at Murray-LaSaine offers families one more choice in a growing and ever-changing educational landscape.

In addition to a range of public school options, private or independent schools and home schooling offer South Carolina parents the chance to tailor the educational environment to meet the needs of each child.

Here are some of the options:

Public Schools

Public schools are offering parents an increasing variety of options these days, including an all-school focus, specialized programs within traditional schools, as well as individual classes such as Advanced Placement or gifted and talented courses. Magnet programs, designed to draw students to a particular school, vary widely and may include options such as rigorous academic classes, fine arts and more.

Paul Padron, executive director of Access and Opportunity for Charleston County School District, said families can find an array of choices within the district's public school system.

"We are expanding quite a bit of the choice programs, with a particular emphasis on Montessori," he said.

Throughout Charleston County, public school options include county-wide magnet programs (two of which are in the top 10 in the country), constituent magnets (for local areas) and partial magnets (open to constituent districts).

Padron said the district plans to continue adding programs that will allow families to have choices without driving across town.

"We feel every area should have options that meet their needs," he said.

Public School Pros

Parents have no out-of-pocket costs, except for some fees.

Transportation is available in most cases and families may qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Choice programs give families options that were previously only available through nontraditional or private schools.

A wide variety of needs can be met, including special needs, gifted education, physical, mental and learning disabilities and more.

Public health screenings are provided.

Public School Cons

Choices may be limited, depending upon area of residence.

Class sizes may be larger than in private or charter schools.

Attendance requirements and school calendars may not afford families flexibility for travel or other student interests.

School programs and quality can vary widely.

Public Charter Schools

Charter schools are increasing across the state, according to Laura Bayne, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Public Charter School District, which includes 24 schools serving almost 15,000 students. Seven of those schools are virtual programs.

"Charter schools are public schools in South Carolina," Bayne said. "The difference (from traditional public schools) is the governance. A charter school is governed by a board at the school level and they are all elected by the parents. In exchange for that comes an increased level of accountability."

Charter schools may also operate under a charter granted by their local school district. In that case, attendance is limited to students within that district.

Charter schools operate based upon a charter, which outlines the school's mission. The programs vary, and they include brick and mortar and virtual schools.

"Every charter school has something that would make them stand out from the pack," Bayne said.

The offerings continue to increase.

"We're seeing a tremendous amount of interest in opening charter schools and most are meeting their enrollment goals," Bayne said.

For 2014, a charter has already been granted to a North Charleston program that will specialize in at-risk students and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

Because they are public schools, charter schools administer the same tests as their traditional counterparts and use a curriculum approved by the state. However, the schools are governed by a local committee that assures compliance with the charter.

"They have to do state-mandated testing and they have to follow state standards," Bayne said. "We see charter schools as providing a full menu of options. We don't see it as a competitor (to public schools). Charter schools are public schools."

Public Charter School Pros

The governance structure gives parents great input.

Choices vary and include virtual schools, which allow students to learn at home.

Students attend at no cost to parents.

Schools operate at a lower cost.

Parents choose to have their children attend, providing increased accountability for all.

Charter schools offer innovative programs, according to Bayne.

Public Charter School Cons

Some programs may be unavailable due to the limited budget.

Transportation issues should be considered.

Virtual schools may require an adult to be present at home.

The board structure may be seen as a negative element, if parents do not agree with the board's decisions.

Private schools

Independent or private schools offer parents a tuition-based option. The types of independent schools vary widely, according to Larry Watt, Executive Director of the South Carolina Independent School Association, a nonprofit, voluntary association of 114 member schools teaching approximately 29,000 students.

"We are non-government-funded schools," Watt said. "The vast majority are nonprofit, and they come in all shapes and sizes."

Tuitions vary as well, from $6,000 per year to $16,000 per year or more per child.

Watt said parents take on the role of consumer when choosing a private school.

"The 'buyer beware' motto certainly goes with looking at any independent school," he said.

But families also control their choice.

"Parents in any independent school are challenged to be more involved than they would in any other school," Watt said. "We, every day, have to prove ourselves or there is no reason for people to pay tuition to come to the school."

Private schools give parents the option to find a school that meets their child's specific needs.

"No two children are alike," Watt said.

Private School Pros

Accredited independent schools receive oversight from the accrediting body, as well as standards for teacher credentials, safety and more.

Private schools often maintain small class sizes, affording teachers the opportunity to challenge students and make sure their needs are met.

Parents hold schools accountable. "Parents are free to move their child out immediately," Watt said.

SCISA members use nationally standardized testing and most have used the same test for years, affording a long-term picture of progress.

Schools are governed by a local board of directors.

Private School Cons

Parents must pay the cost of education.

Budgetary constraints may limit the availability of some programs.

Transportation issues should be considered. Watt said very few private schools offer transportation due to the cost involved.

Home Schooling

Parents may also choose to bring the classroom home.

Debbie Humphries, a counselor with the South Carolina Association of Independent Home Schools (SCAIHS), said three options are available for home schooling in South Carolina. In each case, the home-schooling parent must have a high school diploma or GED.

"Option one is registering with the local school district," Humphries said. "There is no charge for that."

Humphries said that option is a way to remain a legal home school, but parents may find that some districts are not equipped to assist them.

"Option two is SCAIHS," she said. "We are the only association that we know of that is actually written in the state home-school law. SCAIHS was formed so there would be an alternative to the school district."

Humphries said SCAIHS offers curriculum counseling and requires testing, progress reports and more.

A number of so-called "third option" associations are recognized throughout the state. Their requirements vary, as does the level of assistance and accountability required of parents. Many offer support, field trips, group events and more.

As home schooling continues to increase, more options are opening up to families, with recreation centers, YMCA branches, museums and other organizations offering classes and programs for home-schooled students.

Home Schooling Pros

Home schooling offers a great deal of flexibility. Students with specific gifts or talents can move ahead or study a topic more deeply, especially at the high school level, according to Humphries.

The education is specific to the student with one-on-one accountability. Students receive individual attention and studies are structured to their individual learning styles.

Students interact with a variety of ages and are not peer-segregated. "It provides a much more well-rounded education," Humphries said.

High school students can have dual enrollment for college and high school credits.

Because students do not have down time for administrative tasks and other needs of the classroom environment, the school day can be shorter, allowing time for volunteering, internships and other activities related to individual interests.

Students are not exposed to negative peer pressure and other influences.

Home Schooling Cons

Children may feel isolated if parents do not involve them in outside activities.

Parents are responsible for all educational costs.

Family sacrifices are often required, such as reducing to one income.

Families must be diligent about guarding time for the school day.


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