My turn: In support of Montessori

Posted: Monday, January 14, 2008

Perhaps it is the rare human being who emerges from the formative influences of their childhood still flexible, able to be influenced and changed by their adult lives. We adapt to events or the needs of the moment, of course, but at our core, we remain the same.

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That which moved us to tears as a child still tugs at a hidden corner of the adult heart, and those things that terrified and scarred us from years past still write their marks upon both word and deed.

I can think of no other explanation for Edith McHenry's letter to the editor on Jan. 7, in which her objections to the consolidation of Montessori students into a single building are based neither in fact nor in reason and whose rhetoric seems to be rooted in something far removed from the present issue.

McHenry states the consolidation is "an example of vocal, upper middle class families desirous of a private education for their children at public expense grabbing resources from mainstream schools." I am curious as to how McHenry classifies a public education program open to all Juneau public school students as "private."

There are two distinct Montessori programs in Juneau - the Juneau Montessori School, which is a pre-school and kindergarten facility located in Douglas, and Montessori Borealis, the program offered within the Juneau School District.

The Juneau Montessori School is indeed a private facility; Montessori Borealis is not. Students within that program are district students, pay no tuition, and are funded by the same funding formula as any other - there is absolutely no difference. To assert that Montessori Borealis students are somehow separate from district students is equivalent to stating that those students who take advantage of Extended Learning or special education programs offered by the district are somehow distinct and not "real" district students.

McHenry also intimates that the Montessori Borealis student body does not represent the demographics of Juneau as a whole. She paints a picture of financially well-off families seeking to deprive poorer families and students of already scarce resources. She does not, however, offer enrollment statistics or other data to support her claims. The district-supervised lottery by which students are admitted to the program sets percentage targets for socio-economic status, special education, local attendance area, and gender, and the composition of a Montessori classroom does indeed represent the diversity of Juneau as a whole. In addition, I submit that being a single father in graduate school does not qualify me as "upper middle class," nor does it make me financially well-off.

Perhaps the most telling sentence of her letter is this: "Folks should recall that I was able to defeat an application for the granting of a charter for the Juneau Montessori Charter School ... ." The focus is not on the legitimacy of the charter sought, nor on the reasons it was denied, nor even the well-being of the district students she claims to champion, but on the perception of personal power.

Consolidation of the Montessori classrooms is certainly not an easy task. Nobody would claim otherwise, and the initial selection, Mendenhall River Community School, was approved neither by Montessori Borealis nor the staff of Mendenhall River. But the vitriol that McHenry has aimed at the Montessori program in general appears to be disproportionate to the issue.

The emphasis of the Montessori program is on community, not an elite separatism, and it is precisely that community of students, teachers, parents, friends, and elders that is held in the highest esteem as the foundation of an educated individual. McHenry is part of that same community, and we invite her to visit a Montessori classroom and observe first-hand the children who are part of hers - she would be welcomed.

• Kray Van Kirk is a Juneau resident.

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