Montessori families look to build school within existing district
Supporters of bringing a charter Montessori school to Santa Cruz slowed their roll on Tuesday, April 3, when the group of about 90 families voted to give working with Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS) officials a shot.
District officials had recommended building the school into the existing alternatives offered in the city and resisted signing a charter. Months of negotiations—which began in July 2011 after the group Maria Montessori Charter School Families (MMCSF) formed—had created a tense working relationship. The most buzzed about moment came in the fall, when MMCSF released a video that intended to promote the advantages of the schools. Public school supporters saw it as a hit piece aimed at discrediting traditional public schools.
The April 3 vote, however, gave both parties a chance to breathe. SCCS Board President Cynthia Hawthorne says the district resisted the charter arrangement because it would leak resources from their already depleted budget. She adds, however, that they were always open to forming a student-led education program that her staff would run.
“We are really hopeful that the district wants to create a Montessori program,” says Whitney Smith, spokesperson for MMCSF. “Now we just need to find out a timeline, the scope and anything else that needs to be done to start it up.”
Smith hopes that the program will be up and running by fall 2013. Hawthorne says the most likely location for this new school is the former Branciforte Elementary School campus on North Branciforte Avenue. The campus—collectively called Branciforte Small Schools—currently houses several small alternatives to traditional public schools, including Monarch Community School and Alternative Family Education (AFE).
Hawthorne says that the fact that the school would be district-run makes her more comfortable with opening another option for students who don't take to the standard school model.
“If it is in the district, we can oversee the admissions and ensure that it remains diverse,” says Hawthorne. However, she adds that the district has several regulatory hurdles and agencies to clear with the new program before it can open.
Diversity and access to the school concerned SCCS Superintendent Gary Bloom from the outset of negotiations with Montessori supporters. He acknowledges that there is no “one size fits all” recipe for educating young people. However, he says that the charter school movement has a hit and miss record of improving results, and are immune from most oversight by the public districts that endorse and fund them.
“Our district has only four elementary schools,” says Bloom. “If you open a fifth school that draws primarily Anglo, affluent students, you would break our sense of community. It is dismaying to see elements [of the community] abandoning public schools.”
Pacific Collegiate School on the Westside of Santa Cruz—which is for junior high and high school students—has embodied this problem for Bloom. Although being named the top charter school in the country by Newsweek, local groups charge that they don't enroll enough minority and low-income students.
Children of the school's board members are guaranteed enrollment. Other students are chosen through a lottery each year. Smith says that the proposed charter Montessori school would not have used either practice. She adds that whether a charter or publicly run Montessori, it would increase diversity by opening up the school to families that can't afford the two private options currently available in the county. Smith's daughter attends the Nido (“nest” in Italian) program for preschoolers at Scotts Valley Montessori at a cost of $20,000 per year.
“If there was a public option in town, it could open it to so many more families,” she says.
If it were chartered, $6,000 per student flowing from the state would go to the charter school and away from the four other elementary campuses. Hawthorne says that fixed costs of electricity, janitors and more do not decrease at schools such as DeLaVeaga Elementary when students go to other campuses. However, the transfer of funds would make the former work with fewer funds to cover those expenses.
If the Montessori program grew to the 135-student goal supporters have set for its first five years, the district's annual cost would be about $1 million. The total budget for all four schools and Branciforte Small Schools is currently $16.2 million.
“It takes about $1.7 million to run all of Gault Elementary,” says Hawthorne. “It would be [almost] equivalent to closing an entire elementary school.”
SCCS trustee John Collins says this basis should not be part of the equation when looking at offering new education formats to area residents. He believes there is room in the marketplace of ideas, and supports the Montessori families in their efforts to bring more concepts to the table. With budget cuts every year to public schools he says it is crucial to look at new ways to best educate all types of learners with the limited resources available.
“When I was a student here, California school funding was No. 1 or two in the country with New York,” says Collins. “Our quality of living is a direct result of that [strong support] of public education. I think Montessori has a great model, but I would like to see that integrated into our school system.”
The concept of Montessori education dates back to 1912 when Maria Montessori was running a childcare center in Italy. By observing children she was watching over, she concluded that “young children learn best in a homelike setting, filled with developmentally appropriate materials that provide experiences contributing to the growth of self-motivated, independent learners,” according to montessorischools.org.
This system has shown especially positive results with autistic children, who can be very focused on certain topics but are turned off by techniques that are not as self directed, such as those used at traditional schools. Whether chartered or in the district, the SCCS would also be on the hook for the cost of aides for these students.
Smith says the costs could be lower for the Montessori program after start-up costs because there would be no textbooks and fewer handouts used than in traditional schools.
“For math lessons there are beads and other manipulative supplies,” she says.
She also says that teachers’ salaries are lower at Montessori schools. However, Hawthorne counters that if the district were running the program, the teachers hired would be union members and entitled to the same salary and benefits of current elementary instructors.
Monarch Community School—part of Branciforte Small schools—was recommended to families who could not afford private options when negotiations began in 2011. The school has mixed-age classrooms and employs many hands-on learning techniques these parents are looking for their children to experience.
But Smith says that is where the Montessori parallels stop.
“At no time in a Montessori school does the teacher stand at the front of the class and say, 'this is the lesson for today,'” says Smith. “Instead students work in small groups on projects of their choice, with the teacher roaming the class and helping only when it's requested.”
At the time of this writing, Superintendent Bloom was preparing to visit a public Montessori school with more than 300 students in San Francisco. He made the trip to see how one could be formed here while still meeting state standards for public districts in California.
Hawthorne says that private schools can move farther from state standards because they can withstand losing accreditation with private revenue sources.
“We are going to do the best to create a program that we can afford,” says Hawthorne. “Private Montessoris can work outside of state codes and continue on without accreditation because they make up for it with [other revenue sources].”
It is unclear where this debate will go next, but all parties are hopeful the new approach to collaborating will satisfy the wishes of alternative seekers and those already in traditional schools.