Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School is only Montessori charter school in the state of Georgia. The K-5 public charter school opened its doors in August of 2008 after gaining authorization from the Savannah-Chatham Board of Education. The Montessori charter school was started by seven Savannah-area residents who formed the Coastal Empire Montessori Charter Organization (CEMCO), a nonprofit corporation whose goal was to provide the students of Chatham County with the opportunity to experience education based on the teaching methodology and philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.
“We believe we’re changing lives at our school, says Stephanie Babcock-Wright, Executive Director of Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School. “The child is the number one asset that we’re developing.”
When the Title 1 charter school opened twelve years ago, school leaders say the only other public Montessori program was Charles Ellis Montessori Academy, an elementary school authorized by the same district.
Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School utilizes a Montessori curriculum aligned with the Georgia Performance Standards. To make that a reality, the school created a tool that allows its teachers to follow the standards while also utilizing the Montessori Methods and philosophy. Babcock-Wright says the school has made constant adjustments in order to balance the Montessori curriculum and philosophy with public accountability. Three years ago, the school made major changes to the document that aligns its curriculum with the Georgia Performance Standards. In the past, the standards were the base of the document and the Montessori curriculum was placed on top of those standards. Now, the Montessori methods and philosophy are the foundation of the document while making sure all of the Georgia Performance Standards are covered. Babcock-Wright believes the change gives students a broader and richer education that will ultimately benefit them.
Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School is committed to providing students with a holistic education. As part of its curriculum, the school emphasizes social and emotional learning, independence, nature and the outdoors and nutrition.
“Everyone realizes the benefit of a holistic education, but I believe that Montessori truly is that,” says Stephanie Babcock-Wright. “Maria Montessori was focusing on the whole child approach to education before anyone else was. As a researcher and a pediatrician, she was doing it because she truly believed it was what children needed. Montessori is based on a child’s development and follows the child.”
“In our curriculum, we’re really able to not only teach reading, writing, math and history but every aspect of the whole child,” says Katherine Davis, Head of Montessori Curriculum and Instruction.
Babcock-Wright is proud of the independence the school fosters in its students. She says they are encouraged to use their words to communicate and perform tasks on their own. It’s something Babcock-Wright says parents notice and appreciate.
“When we see our fifth graders and they talk about their time here, you can tell that something different and positive has happened in their time at Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School,” says Babcock-Wright.
Babcock-Wright first became involved with Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School as a parent when her son entered Pre-K. She is a social scientist and educator who has worked in law enforcement and education and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and French from Bucknell University, a Master of Arts in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Master of Science in Criminal Justice from Suffolk University and a Master of Education in Middle Grades Education from Armstrong Atlantic State University. When her son started at the school, Babcock-Wright was a teacher at another school in the district but was soon recruited to serve as a Trustee on the school’s board. In Coastal Empire’s third year, she was offered the position of Director of Operations at the school. She served in that role for two years prior to becoming the school’s Executive Director.
Babcock-Wright is proud that the school has high staff retention and a positive and safe school culture. She says year after year, the school receives high scores in parent surveys given by the Georgia Department of Education. The surveys are part of a School Climate Star Rating given by GaDOE. In 2019, the school received above a 90 on the rating system. In 2018, the school scored an 89.7 on the School Climate Star Rating.
“All of the educators at this school are passionate and mission-driven. We’re also solid and stable. I think that’s one of our great strengths,” says Babcock-Wright.
The school, which serves approximately 260 students, is currently at capacity. Babcock-Wright says school administrators and board members hope to find another building where Coastal Empire Montessori Charter School can expand but has similar outdoor space as well as overall feel so the school can maintain its current identity.
In the coming years, BabcocK-Wright says the school hopes to serve as a model for public Montessori education in Georgia and beyond.