Our View: Montessori could stay

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Editorial Board, February to May 2012

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Karen Massey, community representative
  • Jeff Swoyer, community representative

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The Steamboat Springs School District shouldn’t hesitate to cut an elementary Montessori program if it isn’t sustainable or if it impacts the quality of education for other students. But district officials must be prepared to accept the potential ramifications of such a decision, including the formation of a Montessori charter school.

The latest twist to a decade-long series of ups and downs for public Montessori education in Steamboat came when Superintendent Brad Meeks told families of students in Strawberry Park Elementary School’s upper-level Montessori class that this would be the last year for the program. The lower-level class, which continues to see high demand, is expected to remain in place.

Meeks’ reason was simple: Declining enrollment in the Montessori class of fourth- and fifth-graders meant the district needed to reconsider how to best use that teacher to keep class sizes lower in the school’s traditional classrooms. The upper-level Montessori class currently has 16 students. It started the year with 21, a number that decreased, parents said, because of the sudden departure of its longtime teacher just before the academic year started and the district’s difficulty in hiring a Montessori-trained replacement.

Meeks said the district has received 17 student applications for the upper-level Montessori program next year. If the district retains the class despite lower enrollment, Strawberry Park Principal Celia Dunham warned that the size of the school’s traditional fifth-grade classrooms could swell to 25 students. If the upper-level Montessori teacher is moved to a traditional fifth-grade classroom, that number would dip to 21 students.

After taking nearly two hours of public comment during last week’s School Board meeting — most of it from Montessori supporters — the district agreed to give two weeks for them to come up with a plan that would save the upper-level class without costing the district.

Regardless of what plan the Montessori supporters come up with, we agree with district officials in that the proper decision is the one that accounts for the impact of the upper-level Montessori program on the entirety of the school, not just on the students and families who favor the non-traditional education method that encourages hands-on and independent learning.

But the district can’t have it both ways, either. If the School Board follows through on Meeks’ decision to cut the upper-level Montessori program, it must be prepared to accept a possible Montessori charter school application. The lower- and upper-level Montessori classes are in place today because of a compromise between the district and a group of parents that fought a decade ago to get a Montessori charter school built in Steamboat. Their application for the charter school was denied by a former School Board, which argued that a charter school would end up costing the district money and hurting the education provided in its traditional schools. The Colorado Board of Education overturned the School Board’s decision, but the local board didn’t relent. The Montessori applicants filed a lawsuit against the district, which was dropped after the hiring of then-Superintendent Donna Howell led to a compromise between the two sides. A three-year contract was put in place whereby the district would implement a Montessori strand at Strawberry Park Elementary School and the charter applicants would drop the lawsuit. The strand has been in place since the 2004-05 school year.

Cutting part of the program now could result in a new charter school application. And if it does, the School Board ought to be prepared to sign off on it. If the district doesn’t want to provide Montessori education, it must be open to the other options legally available to local families.

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