Board to decide Montessori expansion

New classroom would be for grades one through three or one through four

Posted: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Juneau School Board agreed Tuesday to discuss Montessori parents' request for an additional classroom in the districtwide program now housed at Harborview Elementary School downtown.

The board would give parents an answer by July. District officials are scheduled to talk to parents on Friday, said Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson.

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 they have planned for the expansion for several years with the understanding that the district supported it. District officials said no formal commitment was made. For now, the administration's recommendation is to not add a classroom for next year and instead to work on a formal expansion plan, Sorenson said.

Among the district's concerns are a lack of space for another classroom and the possibility it would have to lay off a regular teacher at Harborview to hire an additional Montessori teacher. The district's elementary schools already are reducing teaching staff because of declining enrollments.

The 38 children who signed up for a lottery for the new classroom and openings in current classrooms would bring 14 new students to the district, said Montessori parent Jean Conneen after the meeting.

That's not enough to justify a new hire. It takes 24 new students to add a teacher, said School Board President Mary Becker.

Karen Klein, parent of a 7-year-old in one of Harborview's regular classrooms, said it was "absolutely unacceptable" if expansion of a districtwide program such as Montessori caused the loss of a regular teacher.

Montessori parents said the program brings children to the district, increasing the district's state funding.

Rich Conneen said his older son was home-schooled until the district implemented a Montessori program. He said his 4-year-old and 2-year-old sons will be in the district because of the program.

But Debbie Fagnant, a kindergarten teacher at Harborview, said she was concerned that Montessori's enrollment process filters out some parents.

"They really do restrict a certain percentage of parents of students who might flourish in the program," she said.

The Montessori parents have said that nearly a quarter of the current students are minorities and 12.4 percent are in special ed or English language learner programs. About 17 percent of the family configurations are single-parent or divorced. Parents estimate that a quarter of the students are from low-income families.

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



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