School district says no to Montessori expansion

Some express concern the program doesn't properly reflect district's ethnic and income mix

Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Juneau School District doesn't plan to expand its Montessori program into a third classroom, administrators say.

Although the Juneau School Board didn't vote on the issue at Tuesday's board meeting, it was clear that five of the six members present did not support the expansion. Only Rhonda Befort spoke in favor of it, saying parents had shown a need. Julie Morris was absent.

Some board members and Harborview Elementary teachers expressed concern that the districtwide Montessori program, which serves grades one to six and is housed at Harborview, doesn't reflect the district's ethnic and income mix or that it affects the scheduling of regular classes at the school.

"At some point you need to look at who's in these (alternative) programs and you have to look at the effect on the district as a whole," said board member Alan Schorr.

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

Montessori supporters have said the district led them to believe three years ago that there would be an expansion. Thirty-eight students signed up this spring for a lottery for seven openings in the current program and 24 openings in a third classroom.

The district spent $12,000 on materials for the third classroom, advertised for the teacher's position, was involved with swelling the current Montessori classroom enrollments in preparation for an expansion, and advertised the expansion with posters and newsletters, said Montessori parent Rich Conneen.

Parents spent $42,000 to train a new teacher and fund her for the past two years, he added.

Assistant Superintendent Bernie Sorenson said there is no official document expressing a commitment.

Sorenson said the third classroom would cost the district about $53,000 for a teacher and perhaps $25,000 for a part-time specialist to support music, library, physical education and counseling programs in the whole Montessori program.

To hire an additional Montessori teacher, the district would have to use one of the two recently funded teaching positions, which the district has reserved for helping with enrollment bulges, officials said.

Sorenson also said the Montessori program has proportionally fewer Native students than the district as a whole, and it has no students in the free or reduced-price lunch program or the program for students who struggle with English.

Montessori parents said in interviews that the district's figures were inaccurate, and that they know of low-income students in the program.

"This program belongs to all the families that choose Montessori for their children. We really believe the only way to make it available is through the public schools," Montessori parent Lupita Alvarez told the board.

Dawn Pisel Davis, a teacher in Harborview's regular program, said accommodating the Montessori program's need for specialists in the afternoon has caused gridlock among other classes. But Montessori parents said the program has had its own specialist for the past four years.

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