FLORENCE COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Bay Road Elementary School Principal Jackee Lynn walked into the classroom at circle time. The students sang songs, talked about their day — and then started telling their teacher what they wanted to learn. Three-year-old students were speaking in full sentences. The 4-year-olds were having full conversations.

“That was amazing to me,” Lynn said. “To have 3-year-olds in the building was absolutely phenomenal, anyway.”

It’s the Hartsville school’s second year with Montessori, a century-old educational program that’s been spreading among Pee Dee school districts. 

Bay Road Elementary School adopted the program last year and expanded it to another class for the 2021-22 academic year. 

Other districts, such as Florence County School District 2, are taking similar paths. 

What is Montessori?

Created more than a century ago, Montessori was boosted in the United States in the 1980s as a proven model about educational choice, according to Floyd Creech, the co-director of Palmetto Montessori Teacher Training.

Creech, who worked with the program when it started in Florence 1 Schools, has since retired and now trains teachers across the state on the Montessori method of education. 

“It encourages children to be very confident, independent learners,” he said. 

Montessori embraces two basic concepts — for children to independently pick what they want to learn, and the elimination of individual grade levels in favor of grouping students together in three-year increments. 

That freedom, Creech said, is commonly misinterpreted as letting children do whatever they want at school.

The idea is that teachers, called directors, work as a guide. Children pick their own lessons or activities within a subject, and make their own education plan. For example, if a class is learning about bicycles, a student can decide if they want to learn about wheels, handlebars or brakes. 

Students can choose their own activities for three hours of their day.

“Teachers are observing children, they are teaching to small groups of individual children, and children are choosing and completing work during that time,” Creech said. 

Subjects taught include math, language and cultural subjects, which are essentially arts and social studies. Creech said lessons and activities tend to be hands-on. Older children are also encouraged to teach younger ones within their classes.

He compares training a teacher in the Montessori method to earning a master’s degree. Between 200 and 500 hours of in-class learning is required for educators teaching the program.

Creech was at Florence 1 Schools two decades ago when the district started its Montessori program. Now, he’s worked with training teachers in Pamplico, Darlington County, Lake City, Manning and Williamsburg County, among others. 

“I think people see it as a positive learning option,” Creech said. 

It’s spreading across the state, and Creech said South Carolina has more Montessori programs than anywhere else in the nation. Previously, the model was primarily seen in charter and private schools. 

The popularity, he said, is coming from word of mouth from those who have seen it work. 

“Their children are learning at a more — in many times more — advanced levels than they have previously, and the children are more confident and more independent,” Creech said. “So they are actually more motivated to learn. Parents like that. They like for their children to be self-guided learners and motivated.”

Why districts want it

Florence County School District 2’s Montessori program started six years ago and has expanded by a grade level each year. The district originally anticipated it’d stop the program at the fourth grade, but expanded it to the fifth grade this year by using COVID-19 relief funds. It hopes to eventually continue it to sixth grade, as well. 

When it first adopted the Montessori method, parents were able to choose between it, or the more traditional model. It’s since become the only model at the school.

“It’s a very sought after program,” said Neal Vincent, the district’s superintendent. 

Despite a different model, the state still has to teach to the state standards. Within that framework, Vincent said Florence County School District 2 has tried to make its Montessori program as authentic as possible within a public school environment. 

Students who fall behind are able to catch up within the three-year group, Vincent said, and the program has also helped with balancing class sizes. 

Comparing test scores from the traditional and Montessori models is difficult, he said, due to the pandemic’s impact on testing, and what’s being called the “COVID slide.”

But when you take students who were in the original cohort, compared to the ones who weren’t, Montessoi students scored higher, according to Vincent. But he said that might be influenced by the fact that parents who were familiar with the program chose that route for their child.

Word has since gotten out. Vincent’s three children are all in Montessori classrooms. He said students excel in it, and first and second graders end up doing multiplication without realizing it.

“It’s just a great opportunity, because it doesn’t just teach facts, it teaches soft skills, which they call ‘culture,’” he said. 

When Darlington County started its program, Lynn took a class on it and met with Creech. The district did research, tours and came up with a plan.

“We didn’t want to slap a name on it and call it a program,” Lynn said. “We needed to do it well and do it for the children.”

She said the district found money within its budget to pay for the program and teacher training. It used flyers, videos and robocalls to get the word out to parents.

The Montessori classrooms quickly got a waiting list. Lynn said she’s still fielding calls from parents trying to get their students into the classes. 

She likes how the model gives children additional choices and independence. Montessori is also known for promoting “peace education.”

“This is a good program to watch them grow,” Lynn said. 

She wants to see the Montessori program grow at Bay Road Elementary School, but doesn’t want it to end up as a fully Montessori school. She wants to eventually see it reach through the fifth grade.

“I think parents just need choices,” she said. 

Although she also hasn’t been able to compare test scores due to the effects of the pandemic, she said the data between the two programs has been comparable, and the research she’s read said that the Montessori students will eventually outperform those in traditional programs.

“I think it’s just a great program,” Lynn said. “It teaches the children to just be independent. It teaches the child peace.”