A group of Juneau parents intends to start a Montessori program for seventh- and eighth-graders this fall.
The Juneau Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a conditional-use permit to put the school in a room in the Articorp building on Harris Street downtown, the same building that houses Juneau Community Charter School.
The class would start with 15 students, said the organizers, the nonprofit Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori.
The Juneau School District offers a districtwide Montessori program for about 40 students in grades one to six at Harborview Elementary School. Privately run Montessori preschools operate in Juneau, as well.
"This is a natural extension," said parent Maria Moya. "There's a lot of demand within the Juneau community for alternative middle school programs, and presently none exist in the school district."
Montessori programs use multi-age classrooms to prepare children to learn at their own pace with guidance from trained adults.
Some of the parents of the 15 initial students have schooled their children in Montessori programs for years. Others are new to Montessori but want an alternative to the usual middle school, said Darla Buck, a parent and board member of the Southeast Alaska Friends of Montessori.
The parents will register with the school district's Cyber School, a home-school program that grants students $1,400 a school year for materials. It's called a cyber school because students also receive use of a computer for research on the Web and e-mail.
Parents will pool that money and raise other funds to pay for the program.
The school district supports the new program, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan. If it garners enough students in the future, it could become part of the district's Montessori program, she said.
"We think it is a very creative way to create a program, and we are happy with it," she said. "It's, quite frankly, what we had hoped to do by having our own cyber school ... which allows kids to take classes in Juneau, be part of a broader educational community, but not necessarily go to a regular school."
The parents have hired a teacher, Dominic Bradford, a Canadian who is training this summer at the North American Montessori Teachers' Association in Cleveland, Ohio.
Bradford said he has taught lower grades in a Montessori program in Calgary, Alberta, for four years.
Montessori programs for adolescents often center around projects in the community and its natural environment, and students create a business enterprise related to it, such as a greenhouse.
"The idea is the children will be doing meaningful real work, so there's a context to everything they'll be doing," Bradford said from Cleveland.
Of the roughly 1,000 Montessori elementary schools in the United States, about a third have a program for adolescents, usually those from age 12 to 15, said David Kahn, executive director of the North American Montessori Teachers' Association.
A few of the programs are what is called land-based, such as students working on a real farm. Others, like Juneau's, are "place-based," and students get out of the classroom for 20 to 40 days a year. Like many regular schools, most at least take field trips.
The program is partly based on the idea that adolescents are very conscious of the society they're in and what others think about them. They're looking for a role to play, Kahn said.
"We call the adolescent a social newborn," he said. "There's a self-awareness that's occurring between 12 and 13. They really need to see things as their peer community sees things, guided by adults who are also part of that community."
Classes in the first year will run from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with the students either going home for more schooling or attending art, music, technology and other elective classes at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.
Sam Buck, 12, who has been schooled in Juneau Montessori programs for all but one year from grades one to six, considered attending Dzantik'i Heeni. He said his friends think it is a great school, but he decided to go to the Montessori program.
The new classroom "sounds like fun," he said. "We get to do a lot of class trips and projects, and all that kind of cool stuff."
Dr. Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who created the type of schools that bear her name, believed that students of middle-school age "should be spending a lot of time bursting out of the classroom walls," Moya said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.