Opening a new chapter

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— A new chapter for the Steamboat Springs School District began quietly last week inside a Strawberry Park Elementary School classroom.

Almost two dozen first-, second- and third-graders shuffled into Linda Stansbery's room early Monday morning, unknowingly becoming the district's first Montessori students.

With the opening of a new chapter came the closing of an old one, a three-year period characterized by bitter standoffs and drawn-out legal battles between the district and a group of parents dedicated to providing area families with another choice in public education.

But that's all in the past, say many who were involved in the struggle to bring the Montessori method of education to Steamboat.

Now the focus is on building a successful and lasting Montessori strand.

"There have been so many ups and downs over the years," said David Patterson, one of the parents who helped form Steamboat Springs Montessori. "It's great to be finished."

The 2004-05 school year is only a week old, but Patterson already has experienced the moment that made the three-year effort worthwhile.

It came Monday afternoon, when he and his wife rode their bikes to Strawberry Park to pick up their daughter, a first-grader in the Montessori strand.

"That was the greatest school day ever," his daughter happily proclaimed.

"It was her first day of first grade, but still," Patterson said. "That's such a great thing to hear. That sort of sums up why we did it. You want your daughter to be excited about her education."

For a long time it appeared moments like those would never come for local Montessori supporters.

The struggle

The effort to bring the century-old Montessori method of education to Steamboat's public school system began in September 2001, led by parents Tony and Carrie Requist. The group of parents, which called itself Steamboat Springs Montessori, went to district officials to propose the creation of a Montessori program within one of the district's elementary schools.

District officials, including former Superintendent Cyndy Simms and current elementary school principals John DeVincentis and Judy Harris, rejected the group's proposal in May 2002. At the time, district officials said they thought such a program would be detrimental to its traditional programs and students.

One month later, Steamboat Springs Montessori submitted an application for a Montessori charter school.

During the course of the next year, the Steamboat Springs School Board would twice reject the charter application, citing the financial impact a charter school would have on the rest of the district as its primary reason for denial. Twice the charter applicants appealed the denials, and twice the State Board of Education ruled in Steamboat Springs Montessori's favor.

The State Board's final decision came with an order for the School Board: approve the charter school application and begin negotiating a charter school contract.

But the district remained adamant in its fight against a Montessori charter school. The School Board argued that the State Board's order constituted an unfunded mandate, and therefore needn't be followed.

By May 2003 the situation was attracting the attention of charter school groups and state lawmakers, including Gov. Bill Owens, a staunch supporter of charter schools. It's a common belief that the well-publicized feud in Steamboat led to a new law that allows the state to grant charter schools, providing a way for applicants to bypass uncooperative districts.

On July 9, 2003, Steamboat Springs Montessori filed a lawsuit against the district, attempting to force the school system to follow the State Board order and negotiate a contract for the charter school.

Superintendent Donna Howell was hired by the district in August 2003, a hire that proved crucial for Montessori supporters. As the lawsuit's legal proceedings slowly unfolded, closed-door discussions between Howell and Steamboat Springs Montessori intensified, and flexibility on the part of both sides allowed a settlement agreement to be hammered out.

The groups agreed in February to start a Montessori strand -- as Steamboat Springs Montessori originally had proposed in 2001 -- that would begin in time for the 2004-05 school year. The lawsuit was dropped, and the work began toward implementing the Montessori strand at Strawberry Park.

Every effort for success

Despite a few disagreements over how the strand was being created, the relationship between the two groups has remained positive during the past few months. Montessori supporters say they're thrilled with the commitment to success the district is showing toward the multi-year pilot program.

"I want to credit the district for everything they've put into it," Patterson said. "They haven't held back. We have all the materials, the trained teacher and now an aide. There's every effort being made for it to be successful, and that's what's exciting."

Between fighting the charter school application and implementing the strand, the district has spent tens of thousands of dollars on Montessori.

Howell deserves much of the credit for the creation of the strand, Patterson said. She was the one willing to step into a contentious situation and serve as an intermediary between Steamboat Springs Montessori and the School Board.

"She realized there was maybe something positive to be gained out of this," Patterson said.

"Where I felt the greatest satisfaction is when we resolved the issue in a way I feel is in the best interests of the community and the students," Howell said.

DeVincentis, Strawberry Park's longtime principal, said he and the school's teachers have welcomed the program with open arms.

"I think it will be a good fit in the building," DeVincentis said.

He expects the strand to be as successful as the school's traditional classrooms have been. Indeed, the school is regularly named a School of Excellence by the state, the determination based largely on Colorado Student Assessment Program student test scores. Montessori students will take the same assessments as all other district students.

But DeVincentis knows it may take some time for the program to operate on all cylinders. Stansbery, the Montessori teacher, attended an intensive Montessori training program in Boulder this summer after a three-decade career teaching in traditional classrooms. The district is in the process of hiring a full-time aide to assist Stansbery.

"It will be a learning year for all of us," DeVincentis said. "I'll have to learn, like everybody, what we can do to help and what we shouldn't do."

For her part, Stansbery has become a quick believer in the Montessori method, developed by a female Italian physician 100 years ago. Montessori education emphasizes self-discovery and exploration in its students, using myriad hands-on learning materials to attract children to different subjects and lessons. Multi-age classrooms are a staple of the Montessori method, which operates under the belief that a classroom's older students can serve as positive role models and tutors to younger students. The older students, in turn, reinforce their own understanding by helping their younger peers.

"I really believe in it," Stansbery said. "I would want my grandchildren in Montessori."

She also realizes she'll have to become accustomed to her new role in the classroom.

"I'm more like a guide than a teacher," Stansbery said. "We guide them and give them the opportunities to explore."

A feeder program

The term Steamboat Springs Montessori has a new meaning now. The group of Montessori supporters merged with the Yampa Valley Montessori Education Center in an effort to re-organize the small Steamboat preschool and kindergarten program.

A primary goal of the reorganization effort is to provide a strong feeder program to help ensure the success of the public Montessori strand.

Steamboat Springs Montessori hired a well-respected and highly-qualified Montessori teacher from Boulder to lead its program, and local educator Elaine Sturges is working as her assistant.

"We feel a real sense of responsibility that we get these little guys ready for success in the strand," said Jody Patten, president of the Steamboat Springs Montessori board of directors and the parent of a kindergartner who attends the school. "We just want to make sure we're offering enough support for the strand. We felt a responsibility to help create a quality program."

While parents such as Patten and Patterson work to ensure long-term success, they also find themselves wondering if a Montessori strand in Steamboat's public school system is a reality.

"We kind of do have to pinch ourselves," Patten said.

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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