Board wants diversity in proposed charter school

Members worry school would deter minority, low-income families

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

Juneau School Board members, considering a proposed Montessori charter school in work sessions this week, raised concerns about equity.

The School Board wants Montessori Borealis to reflect mainstream classroom ethnicities and incomes, School Board member Andi Story said.

A group of Montessori parents and educators has asked the School Board to approve a charter school for preschoolers to ninth-graders. It would start next fall.

"A charter seemed to be the way to go to make this a sustainable option for Juneau," said Fred Weiler, the group's chairman.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are governed by parents and educators. Juneau has one charter school now.

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

Proponents expect to enroll 113 students from kindergarten through grade nine in the first year.

The school would enroll 46 preschool students, funded by tuition and scholarships. The state pays for preschool students only if they have special needs.

There are 97 Montessori students from kindergarten through grade eight in Juneau now. Sixty-six are enrolled in the district's elementary Montessori classrooms at Harborview and Glacier Valley elementaries, the proponents said.

Ten kindergartners attend the private Juneau Montessori School in Douglas. Twenty-one Montessori students are in an adolescent program partly supported by a statewide correspondence school, the proponents said. Those students are in rented quarters downtown.

The proponents want to rent district classrooms for some of the grades in the first year, and eventually house all of the students in a district school building.

School Board member Bob Van Slyke said he wanted to hear from staff and site councils at schools that might be asked to house Montessori Borealis. Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson said the district is considering either Glacier Valley or Riverbend elementaries.

Relations between Montessori and Harborview haven't been smooth. Some Harborview teachers said last year, when the School Board considered expanding the Montessori program, that Montessori draws away the best students and the most involved parents.

Lupita Alvarez, who heads the private Juneau Montessori School, said Montessori has created its own community in which children have the same teachers for three years in a row.

"It's not that we're pulling the best people possible," she said.

Last year, the School Board and some parents and teachers also said some specialized small programs in the district have a lower percentage of low-income and minority students than the district as a whole.

About 24 percent of the district's elementary students are Native or low-income, the district said. The elementary and adolescent Montessori programs are 8 percent Native and about 27 percent minority in general, the proponents said.

School Board members also worried that the application process and parental requirements deterred low-income and minority families.

A district task force is considering those questions and may make preliminary recommendations next week.

The district sets the policies for running lotteries to fill openings in specialized programs. Montessori proponents have said they support preferences for low-income and minority students, and would publicize the school to parents.

School Board member Phyllis Carlson pressed the proponents to say why they hadn't recruited a more equitable mix of students before.

"I don't think we haven't done it," said Chris Trostel, a Montessori teacher in the district. "We haven't done it well enough in the past."

As a charter school, the program would have more visibility in the community, and the responsibility for promoting the school would lie with its organizers, said Jeannie Conneen, a Montessori parent.

The charter application must be approved by the local School Board and the state. The state Department of Education wants a local decision by March 15, Sorenson said.

The School Board has tentatively set noon to 2 p.m. March 1 to discuss the proposal.

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