Montessori deal reached

Settlement lays the groundwork for pilot program

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A lengthy dispute between the Steamboat Springs School District and a group of parents who sought a Montessori option for local public school students will come to an official end this week.

A settlement agreement authored by attorneys representing each side and approved by the School Board at Monday's meeting will serve as the basic contract for a Montessori pilot program scheduled to begin this fall. In accordance with the agreement, Steamboat Springs Montessori will drop a lawsuit filed against the district in July for its failure to approve a Montessori charter school application.

School Board President Paula Stephenson signed the settlement agreement Tuesday; Steamboat Springs Montessori member Jody Patten said she and two other group members will sign the agreement as soon as possible.

Both groups hailed the agreement as a positive conclusion to a dispute that sparked statewide interest.

"We're excited," Patten said. "I feel confident the district is completely behind this program's success."

Under the terms of the agreement, the Montessori strand will begin as a three-year pilot program that will be evaluated by the district at its conclusion.

Steamboat Springs Montessori sought a five-year pilot, but Patten said the group was willing to place its trust in the district.

"I think the intention is for this to be a long-term, successful program," she said. "It's going to be a really viable choice for many families."

A minimum of 22 students is necessary for a Montessori class to be created, though Superintendent Donna Howell has sole authority to waive the enrollment requirement. Interested families must enroll their students by May 15.

Patten said she wouldn't be surprised if as many as 28 students enroll for the first year of the program.

The agreement keeps open the possibility of additional Montessori classes depending on enrollment. Whether the multi-age class or classes are grades one through three or some other variation depends on enrollment interest. The agreement specifically allows flexibility in the implementation of the program.

As was previously planned, an existing district teacher will be recruited and trained for the Montessori program for the 2004-05 school year. The district will pay for all startup costs for the program, including expenses for Montessori materials and teacher training. The district estimates the startup cost to be $50,000 per Montessori class. Money to fund the program won't come from general operating expenses but rather a combination of grants and one-time revenues such as a debt service deposit agreement that will net the district about $180,000.

The district retains the authority to cut the program if its financial state warrants such a decision.

The Montessori program will adhere to the content standards established by the school district, and Montessori students will take the same standardized tests and assessments as all other district students. Montessori students won't be graded.

One of the district's biggest concerns with the program is that it will create division within the school. A provision in the settlement agreement states that parents of Montessori students can't form a separate parent-teacher organization.

"We don't want any division," Patten said. "We're still part of Strawberry Park and part of that community of learners."

Also under the language of the agreement, Steamboat Springs Montessori will withdraw its lawsuit against the district and can't refile the lawsuit or any similar lawsuit for the duration of the Montessori program. The group can't submit any other Montessori charter school applications during the existence of the program, either.

"This agreement relies upon a lot of trust on our part," Patten said. "We feel very confident in Donna Howell and (Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal) John DeVincentis.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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