What is Montessori?
"Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses, using many hands-on materials. Children in Montessori classes learn at their own pace and according to their own choice of activities from hundreds of possibilities. Learning is an exciting process of discovery, leading to concentration, motivation, self-discipline, and a love of learning."
— Steamboat Springs Montessori
Steamboat Springs This year's cancellation of the Steamboat Springs School District's Montessori program would have been hard to imagine just two years ago.
As recently as 2011, parents had to wait patiently on a waitlist to see if their children's names would be drawn from a lottery to join the two Montessori classrooms at Strawberry Park Elementary School.
But coinciding with the departure of the program's longtime lead teacher at the start of the 2011-12 school year, enrollment started to dwindle as the district worked hard to satisfy parents who were concerned about finding a qualified replacement teacher.
Despite effort from parents and the school district to sustain the program, the fourth- and fifth-grade Montessori classroom was closed in 2012 because of low enrollment.
At the end of this school year, the first- through third-grade classroom also was closed because of dwindling numbers.
Today, with no Montessori in the public schools, some parents are concerned about the alternative education program's future in Steamboat.
And there even is some chatter among parents about starting a new charter school to fill the void.
“I think some parents are sad the program is gone,” Clare Berkey, the head of school at the Steamboat Springs Montessori preschool and kindergarten, said Monday. “Some are wanting their children to continue their Montessori education past age 6. Some are a little disappointed in the school district and maybe feel they didn't deal with it the right way. I'm a little disappointed.”
Berkey's school has in recent years served as a feeder school for the Montessori classrooms at Strawberry Park.
While the public schools have seen enrollment in the program dip dramatically in the past two years, the private preschool and kindergarten continues to see strong enrollment.
Berkey said that next school year, the campus near downtown is expecting to be full with 25 students.
It also saw kindergarten enrollment jump from two students last school year to 11 in the coming one.
“I think our school is going to be fine because Montessori is great for preschool and kindergarten,” Berkey said. “We'd like to see first, second and third grade here, but we can't currently accommodate that.”
Berkey said some Montessori parents are having some preliminary discussions about whether a new Montessori charter school could be feasible in Steamboat.
Strawberry Park Principal Tracy Stoddard, who was sad to see her public school's Montessori program end, said she also recently has heard from parents talking about the potential for a charter school.
The principal said she would welcome the idea if there's enough passion behind it.
“If they could do that, it would be great,” she said.
Berkey said she is supportive of a new Montessori charter school, and it has the potential to thrive.
A call Monday to the parent mentioned by Berkey as leading the discussions was not returned.
A decade of Montessori
Montessori's history in Steamboat's public schools goes back 10 years, when a group of parents in 2003 sued the school district after it opposed the establishment of a Montessori charter school.
The district and the parents reached a compromise that placed the program at Strawberry Park.
There, it grew and thrived for several years until this spring, when district officials said they were surprised to see enrollment decline.
"It's a mystery in terms of why it has happened," Curriculum Director Marty Lamansky recently told the Steamboat Today about the dramatic drop in enrollment. "It's just something we've watched. And today, in these budgetary times, we have to make some tough choices."
The district couldn't justify continuing the classrooms with low enrollment while it also tries to maintain small class sizes in regular classrooms.
Asked Monday about the potential of a new Montessori charter school, Steamboat Springs School Board President Brian Kelly predicted any such effort would require a large group of parents to overcome the many hurdles and challenges involved in starting a new school.
“It's not that it can't be done, it's just that it's going to take a dedicated group of parents. And if it does happen, I wish them the best of luck,” he said.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com
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