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Montessori parents to make case for more classrooms

Parents had believed school district agreed three years ago to expansion

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

Parents of Montessori students want the Juneau School District to expand the grade-school program into a third classroom.

They will make their case to the Juneau School Board at its meeting Tuesday.

Parents said they have planned for the expansion for several years with the understanding that the district supported it. The parent group Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori spent $12,000 to train a prospective teacher in the Montessori method.

A current Montessori teacher advertised openings in a third classroom and the current classrooms in the March 11 newsletter of Harborview Elementary School, which houses the districtwide program.

But the district canceled a May 2 lottery for slots in the new classroom and the current classrooms. After a week or two, officials told some parents that it hadn't formally agreed to expand the program and didn't know if the expansion would take place.

"They have over the years planned for growth with the thought the district was in support," said Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson in an interview. "They are feeling is that still so. That's clearly so. We very much support growth and options for students and parents."

But the district has limited space and money.

The district's Montessori program has 48 students. There are separate classrooms for grades one to three and for grades four to six, but the kids mix throughout the day. The new classroom would be for grades one through three or grades one through four.

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

Parents said the program deliberately over-enrolled the current classroom for young children, with 28 children, because they believed the district had agreed three years ago to an expansion. The district superintendent and Harborview principal at the time have since left the district.

Current Harborview Principal Kathi Yanamura said the discussions this school year about expansion have been about having enough space for a classroom and having enough students to justify it.

With 38 students on a list for a lottery for openings, the Montessori program has enough students. But the school doesn't have the space, she said.

Sorenson said the district may look at other schools to house one or more Montessori classrooms if the School Board approves an expansion.

Another important issue is staffing, Yanamura said. The district won't allow Harborview to add to its staff. The school would have to lay off a teacher in its regular program in order to hire a teacher for the new Montessori classroom, she said.

Because Montessori requires specially trained teachers, the laid-off regular teacher wouldn't be able to switch to the new job, she added.

"One teacher doesn't sound like a lot," Sorenson said. "But when you have to cut one to get one, it sounds like a lot."

Alison Talley has a fifth-grade son in the Harborview Montessori program. She'd like to place her younger son in it, too. Without a third classroom, she'll have to compete for one of seven open slots, which are for first-graders only, in the existing classroom for young children.

If her first-grade son doesn't get a slot for next school year, she might home-school him, Talley said.

"It's pretty upsetting to be dangling this way and not know what to expect," she said.

Talley said she's willing to make a commitment to educate her sons in a public Montessori program through grade nine.

"We're ready to make a really long-term commitment to Montessori," she said. "We were hoping the school district had made the same commitment so we could do that."

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



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