District approves Montessori strand

Lawsuit against district to be dropped

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In a stunning move that followed nearly four months of closed-door negotiations, the Steamboat Springs School Board approved on Monday a multi-year Montessori strand for Strawberry Park Elementary School.

Steamboat Springs Montessori, a group of parents who sued the district in July over its refusal to follow a state order to accept its charter school application, will drop its lawsuit in conjunction with the agreement.

"I'm very pleased we've found a local solution," School Board President Paula Stephenson said. "I think it's a testament to all the hard work both groups have done."

After more than two years of struggling to bring the Montessori method to Steamboat's public schools, members of Steamboat Springs Montessori were thrilled with the resolution.

"This should be the best way to resolve this, and we're very excited about this," Tony Requist said. "It's nice to be working together."

As part of the agreement, the school district will implement a multi-age Montessori classroom at Strawberry Park this fall. The strand is expected to create one first- through third-grade class, but district officials said the number of classes and age groupings could change depending on interest in the program.

"This is good for the district and good for the community," Superintendent Donna Howell said. "(Montessori) is a different delivery system. It's educationally sound. It has a long history. It meets the needs of students in a different way and I think it can work very well in our community."

But, she said, "There's a lot of unknowns. Right now we're making a commitment to the implementation (of a strand)."

The program will be open to elementary students at Strawberry Park and Soda Creek. The district will recruit an "in-house" teacher to train in the Montessori method and take over the program. Principal John DeVincentis will supervise the strand and will be aided by Soda Creek Principal Judy Harris.

"I really felt like there was a middle ground all along," DeVincentis said. "It just took this long to find it."

Monday's announcement brought the Montessori issue full-circle.

Steamboat Springs Montessori originally proposed a strand for the school district in 2001, but neither side was willing to make the concessions necessary to reach an agreement. The Montessori group submitted a charter school application shortly thereafter, and the situation between the two groups spiraled downward, eventually resulting in a lawsuit brought against the district in July.

David Patterson and Jody Patten, members of Steamboat Springs Montessori, gave Howell much of the credit for starting a smooth and cooperative negotiations process. District officials said the Montessori group's willingness to be flexible in the implementation of the strand was key to the agreement.

Formal negotiations between Steamboat Springs Montessori and the district began in November, shortly after Steamboat voters elected two new School Board members and supported -- by a 2-to-1 margin -- the School Board's stance against the proposed Montessori charter school.

Negotiating a compromise in the midst of an ongoing legal battle put both sides in an interesting and possibly compromising position, so each group had its attorneys draft an agreement that kept all aspects of the negotiations separate from any legal proceedings.

"We didn't want to jeopardize either side in the lawsuit," Howell said.

The sides met formally three times since November, not including informal conversations and e-mails, Howell said.

The process includes a recent visit to Carbondale's school district by Howell, DeVincentis, Content Standards Director Kelly Stanford and Michelle Miller, and elementary school teacher on special assignment.

That the agreement came Mon-day -- just two days before each side was scheduled to present oral arguments before Routt County Judge Michael O'Hara -- had much more to do with ensuring the strand could start in time for the 2004-05 school year than ensuring the lawsuit was dropped before a ruling was made, Howell said.

"We need to set up teacher training, we need materials," she said. "That was more of an issue than the oral arguments."

The two sides met Monday afternoon to complete the language of the agreement and a joint statement that was read at the board's meeting. In addition to the stipulation that Steamboat Springs Montessori must drop its lawsuit, the School Board announced it won't consider implementing any other educational options until the multi-year Montessori pilot program is completed.

The length of the strand program is not expected to be any shorter than three years. Patten said an accurate evaluation of the success of the program can't be done until a group of students has progressed through the program.

Negotiating a strand solved one of the district's fundamental objections to a Montessori charter school -- the financial impact it would have on a school system already experiencing decreasing enrollment and revenue. Creating a Montessori strand within one of its existing schools will cost a fraction of what a charter school would, Howell said.

The district may increase its revenue with the strand if it attracts students from private schools, other school districts or students who are home-schooled, she said.

Howell estimated the cost of implementing the strand at no greater than $50,000, which includes supplies, materials, Montessori training and a stipend for a staff member. The district won't cover the costs from its general operating budget, instead using grants, fund-raising and one-time revenues. The district also will save money in expected attorney fees to continue to fight the lawsuit, Finance Director Dale Mellor said.

"This is a new beginning," DeVincentis said.

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