Parents want Montessori program to expand |

Parents want Montessori program to expand

Zach Fridell
Third-grader Katie Saunders helps first-grader Lydia Noble with her classwork at Strawberry Park Elementary School. The students are part of the Montessori program at the school. The program's success is attracting attention from parents and students, but only six to eight openings are available to a waiting list of 21.
John F. Russell

— When parents look at the Montessori program educating their children in Steamboat schools, they like what they see.

They’d just like to see more of it.

Montessori supporters say there’s not enough space in classrooms for the students sprawled on the floor, not enough enrollment spots in the program and not enough money in the budget to allow for expansion. Next school year, there will be six to eight openings for new students to join the lower elementary Montessori class at Strawberry Park Elementary School. However, with 21 students of all ages on the waiting list, the spaces available do not meet the demand.

The younger siblings of students already in the Montessori program get enrollment priority, and because there are about eight siblings on the wait list for next year,

the lottery system that usually decides admission will not go into effect. Translation: If you don’t have a brother or sister in the program, you’re probably not going to get in, Montessori program mother and organizer Carrie Requist said.

That’s why Requist and about 10 other parents addressed the Steamboat Springs School Board at its meeting last week – to request an expansion of Montessori resources. The board added the item to a future meeting date, but no other action was taken. The board also is not requesting money from the Education Fund Board, which administers the city’s half-cent sales tax for education, to expand the Montessori program to include another classroom.

This is the fifth year the program has been in place in the Steamboat Springs School District. Next year will be the third year it has been oversubscribed. The lower and upper elementary classes each have 24 students, although the Montessori model suggests having as many as 30 children in a class. A lack of space in the classrooms has kept the enrollment to 24. Each class has a teacher and an aide.

Floor space is instrumental to Montessori programs because of the independent learning methods emphasized by the Montessori method. Instead of having one lesson that is taught to the whole class, each student has his or her own list of goals to accomplish throughout the course of a week in a flexible classroom layout.

Hands-on style

Manipulatives – touchable, movable pieces to count or put in order – often are used for lessons, teaching everything from long division to the order of the planets.

In one classroom Tuesday, 11-year-old Grant Andrews was using cutout numbers to practice the order of operations in a math equation.

“Some people’s brains, they just need to see what’s happening,” Grant said as he replaced the squared numbers with their answers to progress the problem.

Grant joined the Montessori program in third grade and said the program fits his type of learning better than traditional classrooms.

“My brain didn’t exactly get the other (classrooms), and I get this,” he said.

Requist said the program helps many types of students – and parents.

“Just about every child will succeed in this environment. It’s probably better to say there are certain families Montessori is better for instead of students,” she said.

Mickelle Shults said the Montessori program at Strawberry Park was one of the reasons her family moved to Steamboat from Denver. But after arriving in Steamboat, the family discovered that their son, Landon, likely will not be able to enroll because of the space constraints.

Shults said Montessori families tend to pay close attention to their student’s educational development. She said both of her children attended a local private pre-school and kindergarten Montessori program.

Karin Kagan’s 7-year-old son, Kyle, went through the Montessori preschool in Steamboat but was denied entrance to the elementary program because of space.

“If that was made available, we certainly (would) look into it as an option for Kyle, due to his strengths currently in math and geography and such, so he can excel at his own pace and get the most out of his educational program,” she said.

Kagan said she has not been disappointed with traditional education at Strawberry Park.

“They have been fabulous. The regular classroom setting has been great,” she said. “We’re very happy with what we have.”

And true to the Montessori style, Kagan said Kyle has handled the change well.

“We teach adaptability and, yes, we did not get into the program, but at the same time he’s grown quite a bit for his new experiences just for being at Strawberry Park,” she said.

Past and future

The Montessori program has a controversial past. A group of parents approached the district in 2001 to gauge interest in creating a Montessori strand within one of the existing district elementary schools. But neither the parents nor district officials could come to an agreement.The parents group, calling itself Steamboat Springs Montessori, submitted an application to begin a Montessori charter school. The district denied the application, but the State Board of Education twice approved it on appeal.

The School Board declared the state’s decision an “unfunded mandate,” claiming that a Montessori charter school would cost the local school system $250,000 in its first year of operation and as much as $900,000 by its fifth year of operation.

Steamboat Springs Montessori sued the district, but the two sides reached an agreement – brokered by then-new Superintendent Donna Howell – before the case went to trial. The three-year agreement provided for a Montessori strand program at Strawberry Park Elementary School. The agreement included enrollment provisions and a clause that Steamboat Springs Montessori would not sue the district as long as the program was in existence. The three-year deal ended two years ago, but the program has continued – successfully, according to parents and school officials.

Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said it’s an excellent program with a future in the district. She said she has discussed the situation with Montessori supporters and is evaluating short-term and long-term options for the program.

But Requist worries that as more students and families are turned away, frustration with the program will grow and eventually lead many families to not consider it as an option for their children. She agrees with Cunningham that a long-term solution is needed, and she said she’s open to any number of solutions – including the possibility of applying for a Montessori charter school.

No matter what happens, Requist said she and other Montessori supporters are pleased with the open-mindedness of school officials, including School Board members – a far cry from the relationship that led to the lengthy battle earlier this decade.

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