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Is Montessori right for Steamboat?

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David Patterson is a photographer of architecture and interiors. He is also a parent and one of the 12 members of the Steamboat Springs Montessori Steering Committee. The committee is working to incorporate the Montessori education method into the public schools.

Q. The Steamboat Springs Montessori Steering Committee has been working on public Montessori education for about eight months now. How did this process get started and what is the motivation behind this effort?

A. We are a group of local parents and educators who believe in the Montessori philosophy of education as developed by Dr. Maria Montessori almost a century ago. Our passion for the Montessori method comes from both our personal experiences and existing research that shows Montessori produces happy children with a deep love of learning. We want to make this method available as a choice to as many families as possible and therefore would like to make it a public school option. We first approached the school district in September of last year to discuss the avenues available for having a public Montessori program. In the last eight months, we have been exploring all avenues, having continued discussions with the school district and holding open houses to inform the community and gauge desire. We are pleased to say that 70 families representing 100 children have indicated their interest in sending their children to a public Montessori program. We feel this high level of interest shows a desire in the community for this educational choice.

Q. What is it that children can get in a publicly funded Montessori environment that they can't get in the existing elementary schools?

A. Families choose the Montessori method for a variety of reasons. The method integrates the aspects of multi-age classrooms, individualized and self-directed learning, hands-on lessons and an environment of respect and cooperation to support and encourage children to develop to their full potential as students and as people. Montessori classrooms cover three-year age spans (ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and 9 to 12) that are consistent with developmental milestones. Children choose and progress through the lessons at their own pace, allowing for each child to work at his appropriate level in each subject and fostering self-discipline. The unique Montessori materials are attractive, tactile and concrete, allowing children to experience the lessons through many senses. The Montessori method is based on eliminating the barriers that keep a child from educating herself.

Q. Last Monday, the Steamboat Springs School District administration offered the Steering Committee a "Best Practices" proposal concerning public Montessori. What is the reaction to that proposal?

A. We appreciate the time and effort the school district has put into this and we are considering our response. As we have done all along in this process, we will continue to work with the school district and work toward having a public Montessori option available for Steamboat Springs.

Q. Some in the community have argued that Strawberry Park and Soda Creek are already successful schools and that adding a Montessori program will detract from those schools' success. How do you answer such criticism?

A. We are fortunate in our community to have such good schools and we would not propose an alternative that did not meet the community's high standards. Educational choice is good for many reasons. It spurs competitiveness and focuses schools on providing what the families in the community desire. Research shows that parents who have more educational choice for their children become more involved in their child's schooling and both the schools and the child benefit. Steamboat is a dynamic and growing community, but there is very little educational choice available. The school district desires to be on the leading edge of educational reform. They are implementing a number of progressive programs. We are asking that they include educational choice, in general, and the proven Montessori method, in particular, as one of the reforms they support.

Q. One option available for establishing a public Montessori school is to create a charter school. Some argue that charter schools hurt the district, particularly financially.

Is that the case?

A. Charter schools are public schools that are a part of and accountable to the school district. For each student that attends a charter school, 95 percent of the per-student funding is given to the charter school for use in educating that child. Charter schools traditionally draw students to the district who would otherwise go to private schools or be homeschooled. When those children become part of the district, their per-pupil money, which was otherwise lost, is now added to the budget. Charter schools are available as a choice and will only serve the number of students whose families choose that option. As most educators tell us, children most often do not change schools after second grade; we anticipate that only a small number of currently enrolled public elementary children would choose a Montessori charter and therefore the initial financial impact to the existing public schools would be minimal.

In addition, the school district would have time to examine and adjust their budget for the impact of a charter school over time. We are also told that the local elementary schools are quite full to a point that challenges the existing facilities. By having a charter option that some families would choose, we could alleviate some of this stress on the existing schools.

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