From the main hallway of Gilpin County Elementary School, classroom W177 doesn't look any different from the others around it.
Student work hangs from the walls outside the room, showcasing for visitors the accomplishments of the children who work diligently inside. A sign on the door welcomes those who wish to come in to quietly observe the class.
But once inside, it quickly becomes apparent to any visitor this is not your typical public school classroom.
Desks are conspicuously absent, replaced by the occasional small work table. Much of the large classroom is open and uncluttered, designed to encourage students to explore their surroundings and move from activity to activity, often using the carpeted floor as a workspace.
Plain wooden shelves neatly organized with hands-on activities and learning materials line the classroom and define its main areas, and a lone computer workstation sits in a far corner. A reading area with two large sofa-chairs provides a comfort-
able spot to melt into a book. The set-up looks more like a small library than an elementary classroom.
And teacher Judy Faulder quietly takes it all in, observing her students as they work, periodically making the rounds of the classroom, answering questions and checking progress.
Faulder's Montessori class is the Gilpin County School's other option for children in grades one through three. It closely adheres to the philosophies of the namesake Italian doctor who developed the increasingly popular educational method nearly a century ago.
By the fall, a classroom or two at Strawberry Park Elementary School in Steamboat Springs may look very similar to the one in Gilpin County, situated just north of the casino-strewn city of Black Hawk.
Last week, the Steamboat Springs School Board came to an agreement with Steamboat Springs Montessori, a group of parents who have been seeking a public Montessori option for Steamboat children, to implement a Montessori program at Strawberry Park. A completed agreement, for which a settlement likely will be completed by attorneys next week, will result in Steamboat Springs Montessori dropping its lawsuit against the school district. The lawsuit attempted to force the district to follow a state Board of Education order and approve a Montessori charter school for the city.
The district, in exchange, will implement a Montessori program at Strawberry Park and open enrollment to students at Strawberry Park and Soda Creek schools. District officials say the program could draw private and home-schooled students into the district -- a potential revenue boost for a school system struggling with declining enrollment.
Superintendent Donna Howell has been given much of the credit for negotiating the compromise. The decision to establish a Montessori program should end a nearly three-year struggle between the group of parents and a district unwilling to accept the financial impact it says a charter school would have caused.
But questions remain about exactly how the program will be implemented in the district and concerns remain about how staff and parents will react to it.
Lessons from neighbors
Some of the concerns arose from a recent trip Howell and other district employees took to a public elementary school in Carbondale that has implemented a Montessori program. Carbondale school officials told Howell and others, including Strawberry Park Principal John DeVincentis, about the tension that can manifest itself when a different -- and often poorly understood -- method of education becomes part of a traditional school environment.
Gilpin County teachers said similar tensions arose when the 210-student school created its Montessori program six years ago.
Gilpin County first-grade teacher Kathy Haley was one of the few teachers pleased when the program came to the school to provide choice for families and increase enrollment.
"There was a lot of tension from a lot of the other teachers," Haley recalled. "There were a lot of grumblings, like 'This shouldn't be in a public school' or 'Why do we need another class?' I think most people now think it's a good thing to have some choice within our school."
Teachers also worried the new program would take resources away from their classes and that students in the Montessori program would have a difficult time transitioning to a traditional classroom in the fourth grade.
Principal Deb Benitez said taking steps such as making sure the school's lone Montessori class took recess and lunch with the traditional classes, hiring Faulder, who has traditional classroom experience and doesn't exclude her students from schoolwide activities, and moving the program from a separate building to a classroom in the elementary school were keys to dissolving the tension.
"It needs to be just another classroom in the school," Benitez said.
Steamboat officials hope to recruit an in-house teacher to train in Montessori rather than hire a new teacher with Montessori credentials. Doing so would avoid terminating an existing teacher to bring in a new Montessori-trained one and would, school officials hope, sidestep the tension and isolation experienced when the program was implemented in districts such as Gilpin County.
"The staff they hire for the Montessori program will dictate the friction you see," Benitez predicted.
Benitez and Haley also caution the parents of students in a Montessori program to refrain from adopting the attitude that their method of education is better than others.
"They're two styles, but they're both wonderful," Benitez said.
"One is not better than the other," said Faulder, who has taught Montessori for six years after spending many years teaching in a traditional classroom. "It's a matter of choice. It's the best interest of the child that matters, whether it's traditional or Montessori."
The Montessori method
Educating the whole child was one of the primary philosophies of Dr. Maria Montessori. Her philosophies and methods reflect a lifetime of obersvations about the needs of children at different developmental stages.
Her methods were tuned to the basic human urge to explore, according to author Paula Polk Lillard in her book "Montessori Today." Montessori developed hands-on classroom materials that are sensorial by design. She thought classrooms should be well-structured and that teachers shouldn't dictate lessons, but rather observe children individually to determine their needs and help them learn at their individual pace and in accordance with their personal interests.
Montessori thought children would be driven to further their own learning if they were given the opportunity to discover for themselves what they found interesting.
In so doing, Montessori envisioned classrooms such as Faulder's, where open space leads children to self-exploration.
First-grader Nina Halsted started her school day last Thursday working on a bead chain, one of Montessori's primary materials for helping children understand math and its basic principles. She later moved on to "Rainbow Tower" and picked up where she left off with a word association exercise.
Halsted said she likes being able to work by herself, as well as the multitude of materials in a Montessori classroom.
"There are lots of things you can do," she said.
While students are encouraged to guide their own education, the Montessori method necessitates a well-trained teacher who can let go of the urge to direct student learning, Faulder said. It's a philosophy that can be very difficult for some teachers to adopt, especially those with experience in the traditional classroom setting.
"The hardest thing for any teacher to do is let go of that control," Faulder said. "You have to let the child orchestrate. It's a very hard transition to do for some (teachers)."
And so Faulder spends much of the school day observing the children in her class as they move from activity to activity. Individual freedom, however, doesn't mean freedom from responsibility.
Faulder and her students develop weekly schedules for each child, and the students fill out their schedules as they complete work in each subject. Finished materials are handed in throughout the day, and Faulder continually makes the rounds of the classroom, helping students as they need it and occasionally providing a short lesson introducing new concepts for the students prepared to move ahead.
The multi-age classroom, essential to the Montessori program, encourages cooperation and community-building among younger and older students. Third-graders are quick to help their younger peers with an activity or question, thus reinforcing their mastery of the subject. The younger children observe the older students as they work and often see them as role models and inspiration for overcoming a new challenge.
As is the law, public Montessori programs must be aligned with state content standards, and Montessori students take the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests. Steamboat Montessori students also will take the other assessments given by the district, including writing tests.
The multi-year Steamboat program will be evaluated in part by using assessment data to track the progress of children in the Montessori classroom.
Gilpin County officials said test scores of students in their Montessori class are similar to the scores of children in their traditional classrooms. They also said the Montessori students have transitioned well into traditional fourth-grade classes and beyond.
Montessori advocates in Steamboat have little doubt the same will occur here, but Gilpin County officials suggested patience from all while the pilot program is implemented.
"It could be a rough road at first," Benitez said. "You're building a program. You've got to let it grow."
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