Empire editorial: Don't take away from majority of students just to benefit a few

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

You wouldn't think that a school program aimed at nurturing children could raise so many hackles.

But the Juneau School District's Montessori program has triggered a firestorm of debate over where it should be housed. Administrators of the Montessori Borealis program, which serves about 105 children, want to consolidate their six classes in a single location and eventually expand them.

While we support the Montessori program, we don't think its ambitions should be attained at the expense of other students. School principals expressed concerns about the program, and we consider them noteworthy.

The school district's Facilities Committee will take up the issue Monday.

Initially, Mendenhall River Community School in the Mendenhall Valley was proposed as a site for the consolidation. But after strong opposition within the school to that plan, district officials proposed housing the program at the Marie Drake building, which is part of the Harborview Elementary School campus downtown. None of the consolidation involves the private Montessori pre-school and kindergarten classes in Douglas, which are not part of the school district.

Any consolidation, however, comes at a cost to the existing district programs.

Placing all the Montessori classrooms at Riverbend Elementary School, for example, would require reconstruction at the school and take away classrooms, including those for special-needs and disadvantaged kids.

Moving all Montessori classrooms to Marie Drake, which has available space, would mean that the program would be convenient for downtown children, but not for those in the valley. Even with district busing, educators know that distance is a deterrent to low-income families, who have a much easier time getting their children to a school in their own neighborhood. In addition, Harborview already houses several other optional district programs, and to contain most of the education alternatives in only one part of town is not fair to the community as a whole.

Consolidating Montessori would likely mean a redrawing of boundaries so that some non-Montessori kids would not be able to go to school in their own neighborhood.

The disruption from placing all Montessori classrooms on one campus especially rankles some in the school district because Montessori has fewer poor, special-needs and minority children than the general school population. These critics see a consolidation as taking away much-needed resources from kids at large to serve a group of students in one program.

Spreading Montessori classrooms around the district is the best way to maintain a Montessori program within the public school system.

For instance, two classes could be at Gastineau Elementary School in Douglas or at Harborview, two classes could be at Glacier Valley and another two at Mendenhall River Community School.

This would be more likely to encourage students from all parts of town to consider Montessori as an option. It also would allow a better exchange of ideas between the Montessori classrooms and the mainstream classes.

And the Montessori classrooms could be set up so that on two campuses a class with first- through third-graders would be at the same school as a class with fourth- through sixth-graders. This embraces a basic Montessori philosophy in which younger students learn in part from older ones.

Unfortunately, this plan doesn't satisfy the dream of Montessori staff and parents to create a community with all the classrooms in one location.

But school officials need to take into consideration the needs of the school district as a whole. It doesn't make sense to redraw boundaries or displace classrooms and programs that serve a wide range and large number of kids to create a dream school for a few.

The Montessori program offers a rich alternative for students, but it needs to be an option spread throughout the district, so it can be an integrated part of the schools and accessible to all.

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