Montessori parents seek charter school

New school would incorporate private Montessori pre-school on Douglas Island

Posted: Monday, January 17, 2005

Parents of Montessori students want to form a charter school within the Juneau School District.

In Montessori programs, children learn at their own pace, with guidance from adults, in multi-age classrooms stocked with self-teaching materials.

The school, to be called Montessori Borealis, would have students from 15 months old to 15 years old, said Catherine Fritz, president of the Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori.

She said the school would incorporate the private Montessori preschool on Douglas Island, the three elementary Montessori classrooms in the public schools and the Montessori adolescent program in rented quarters downtown.

Eventually, the school could be at one site in a district school building, Fritz said.

One of the advantages of a charter school would be to provide all the grades in one building so that the different ages can intermingle, said Jeannie Conneen, who has a third-grader in the Montessori classroom at Glacier Valley Elementary.

A charter school also would give parents a large measure of governing power while allowing them to tap into public education funds, Fritz said. The preschool program would continue to charge tuition, because the state doesn't pay for those programs, she said.

When the Juneau School Board considers the application, it's likely to talk about issues of equity, access and funding.

The district convened a task force this year to talk about equity in, and access to, all the specialized districtwide programs, said schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan. A charter school application would raise the same concerns about treating regular and specialized programs the same, and having a diverse population in each one.

Juneau now has one charter school for about 65 elementary students. The School Board turned down two applicants in 1999, including a Montessori proposal, partly because it would draw students away from the regular schools and cost the district some funding.

School districts must give charter schools at least the state funds and the mandated local funds their students generate, minus an administrative fee.

Last year some parents and teachers at Harborview Elementary, which houses two Montessori classrooms, said the Montessori program doesn't reflect the district's diversity and it disrupts schedules. They also were concerned that specialized programs draw involved parents away from the regular schools.

Having Montessori as a sort of school within a school makes it difficult for Montessori to meet its needs without impacting the mainstream classrooms, Conneen said.

Montessori programs want an uninterrupted block of three hours in the morning for school work. But that's the time that Harborview schedules specialists in physical education and the arts, Conneen said.

Fred Weiler, a Montessori parent, said being a charter school will allow Montessori Borealis to be open to all students, and to more diverse students, than if it was a private school with tuition.

Whatever admission process it uses would have to be approved by the Juneau School Board, he added.

Montessori Borealis would draw new students to the public schools, including kindergartners and adolescents now in other programs, which would add to the district's funding, he said.

In addition to the state and minimum local funding, the school district usually receives extra city funding, whose amount ultimately is derived from the number of students it enrolls.

Charter schools are public schools funded by the state. They have contracts, called charters, with local school districts. The schools typically are governed a committee of parents and staff that sets curriculum and hires teachers. Charters must be approved by local school boards and the state school board.

If approved, Montessori Borealis would start with some advantages that other charter schools usually don't have.

Montessori parents in Juneau already are well organized and accustomed to fund raising. The school would have a ready-made student body of about 100 students to start, Fritz said. There are several Montessori teachers in Juneau, and Montessori centers produce an ongoing supply of teachers.

This year's application follows concerns by Montessori parents last year that the district was not committed to the program's growth.

Parents asked for the addition of a third elementary classroom. After initially saying the district couldn't afford it and didn't have the space, officials opened a Montessori classroom at Glacier Valley Elementary.

But only about 18 students enrolled, short of the 24 the district had hoped for. To staff the classroom, the district used one its two teacher positions held in reserve to cover enrollment bulges.

Parents said the district approved the classroom shortly before the school year began, and many had made other arrangements by then.

Also, the Montessori adolescent program pulled its affiliation from the Juneau district's cyber school, which is a sort of home-school program that gives parents stipends and use of a computer. Montessori's action cost the district some state funding. The program affiliated with another school district, which provided a larger stipend.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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