My Turn: Montessori is worth investment

Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2004

You may have noticed the recent Montessori expansion issue. Parents and the district put the expansion together, and then at the last minute the district's leadership pulled the plug and called the whole thing off. Then you started hearing about it.

Being a bit involved, I went to the board meetings. The stubborn opposition, even hostility, to this Montessori expansion on the part of district officials and a majority on the School Board got me thinking. The Juneau district has a one-size-fits-all mainstream, and it has few woefully small alternatives to that mainstream. The Juneau district also has a high school drop out rate as high as 30 percent - a rate that should shame any Juneauite who values public education. Especially educators.

In medicine a generation ago hospitals had little to offer besides mainstream American medicine: chemicals, bed rest, surgery and little else. Having a baby? Here's a bed to lie on while you grunt and push. But the last quarter century has seen the acceptance and implementation of a host of alternative medical options. Hospitals now routinely promote health and offer healing through diet and nutrition counseling, chiropractic, acupuncture and a host of other techniques. Alternative birthing techniques are now the norm. And patients are far better served now that these alternatives once scoffed at, are readily available.

Of the Juneau school district's roughly 5,500 students, only about 5 percent are involved in any sort of non-mainstream education experience. But experts say that up to 40 percent of children don't respond well to American mainstream education. Is it a wonder that for a tragically high number of Juneau students the best educational fit is dropping out?

Montessori is an internationally recognized and proven education alternative. Offered in many American public systems, it produces exceptional academic success. Yet 10 years after the district Montessori program's inception it has less than 50 students, and the district's leaders have chosen to entirely exclude from this educational achievement the district's English language learners and its free/reduced lunch students. Alaska Native children and special education students are greatly underrepresented in this academically successful alternative, all due to a lack of spaces that parents are clamoring for.

The alternative high school has fewer than 100 students. Like the district Montessori, it too is an undersized alternative, while the district's leaders and board majority let Juneau's kids drop out in frustration. That leadership and majority apparently believes that building a new high school building and hiring a few new teachers and counselors will have an impact on Juneau's lamentable drop out rate. They will not, because they will just add to Juneau's mainstream glut.

Some assert that alternative education somehow takes resources from mainstream education. It does not. The district Montessori's 48 students, instructors and space are part of the district. The cost is no different for the district whether mainstream education or the Montessori model is being pursued in their classroom. And that is as true for 500 students as 48 students. (The district's data suggest that district-wide parental interest in Montessori would number well over 200 students just in the elementary grades).

In fact, by not advancing and growing educational alternatives, the district costs itself (us, Juneau) significant revenue by chasing or keeping many parents and students out of the district in favor of correspondence or causing students to drop out.

But too many union teachers would rather just sell one-size-fits-all. Board member Alan Schorr would rather use Montessori as a politically correct punching bag to help him hold this October the seat he almost lost last October. And the district's leadership perhaps lacks the professional vision or energy to grow the alternatives. Or maybe the potential for academic inclusion and success for all Juneau's students would be too much of a distraction from paychecks and politics.

The district has the beginnings of solid, well-proved alternatives, but really the district just tolerates them. It regards them as annoying appurtenances, rather then as nascent solutions to an aching problem.

As a community that values public education we should expect our school district to market and grow its alternatives into solutions. We should expect from our professional school district the same range of options and professional competencies we would expect from any other group of professional practitioners.

The monetary cost is the same either way, but only education alternatives can stem the high human cost paid when students are frustrated into dropping out.

• Donald R. Douglas is a co-chair of the district's Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

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