Public school debates future of Montessori program

Orcas Island Elementary School’s Montessori program may not accept new first-graders for the 2018-2019 school year. The public school’s school board agreed at its regular meeting on May 24 to hear testimony for and against continuing the Montessori program for children in first- to third-grade during a special meeting in June. The board also allowed attendees of the meeting to give their public comments.

“So this leads me to our dilemma, why we’re all here tonight, why Montessori does not work for us now. It has, it’s been very successful, I don’t doubt that,” said Orcas Island Elementary School Principal Lorena Stankevich. “There are a lot of components of the Montessori program that are best practices that go everywhere. And I’m really committed to doing those best practices and to leaning that way. But there are also some things about what has been happening that do not work.”

Stankevich had a presentation prepared on the elementary school’s strategic journey which ended with a slide titled “Why Montessori Does Not Work.” She said the reasons why the program is no longer effective for the school include: a perception that a Montessori classroom is better than other classrooms which damages staff morale and causes a lack of collaboration among teachers; the fact that the program is exclusive, affects the composition, dynamics and size of other classrooms; that it interferes with abilities of the national Every Student Succeeds Act; and that it limits teaching methods since teachers work collaboratively to determine curriculum.

History of the program

The Montessori program at the public school began 15 years ago and has been taught by Martha Inch since its inception. The class is a mixed-age group comprised of first- through third-grade students.

The kids placed into the Montessori program need to have applied by May the year prior and then are chosen in a lottery process. Stankevich told the Sounder that parents will often take their children out of public school if they are not chosen to be in the Montessori class.

Stankevich said that during a meeting with elementary teachers on May 23 preparing for the next school year, the Montessori program was discussed at length, and it was decided that it was no longer in the students’ best interest to continue the class.

“The staff at Orcas Island Elementary is committed to our path of collaboration and professional excellence,” first- and second-grade teacher Anna Ford McGrath said during public comment. “We believe in the mission and the holistic educational model that we have created that supports every student in our school. We work diligently to meet the needs of every student in our school by use of many different models.”

Former Orcas teacher and principal Coleen O’Brien agreed, stating that while Montessori offers a good program and teaches children well, she had a bit of hesitancy when the program was first introduced. She said she still has two concerns: the ability of children to make friends when they transition out of Montessori and unbalanced support from parents.

“Being in the [fourth- and fifth-grade] classrooms, I do see a divide. As my students come in to fourth- and fifth-[grades] at the beginning of the year, there is a separation in these kids,” said teacher Kimberly Malo. “They’ve been in separate classes and a lot of times there is this divide between them. As an educator, I am interested in being educated, in learning new ideas and programs and philosophies. I want to learn best practices. I want to know what I can do better for my kids … what I can do that will help them. But I’m not interested in running a single philosophy, a single program. Because that’s not going to be best for my kids. I want the flexibility to adapt, to flex, to change, to do whatever I need to be able to meet these kids’ needs and to meet their needs the best I can do.”

Malo referenced her own experience when she moved to the island when having to decide which educational route she was going to place her children in. She said many parents encouraged her to put her kids into the Montessori program because it was “better.” When asked how it is better, she said, none of the parents had an answer.

“Every parent wants a good – the best possible – education for their child and this is what we are blessed and tasked with here at the public school,” said Sandi Burt, the social worker for the elementary school. “We try to work it so we have balanced classrooms that can work for everyone … I do not believe that we have to separate a different classroom to be sure that we can provide all kinds of quality instruction that meet all of our student needs.”

Burt noted that the Montessori class has fewer students who qualify for free and reduced lunch than their public school equivalents and that there are no special education students in the class.

“What I realized is that we are all doing these really amazing things within our classrooms and we’re just not calling them Montessori,” said Elyn Andersson, who teaches first- and second-grade. “I would like to say yes I believe Montessori benefits, I would like to learn more about Montessori and bring those ideas into my classroom. I just don’t want to be called a Montessori teacher and I don’t want to be having my fellow teachers to be asked to become Montessori teachers to eliminate that exclusive program, because we really believe as a staff we can’t have one classroom. We need multiple classrooms so we have collaboration within our teachers.”

Many parents in the community disagreed with the teachers’ assessments, noting the success of Montessori schools and its students. In total, 27 people signed up to provide public comment; the majority of those speakers were parents in support of the Montessori program.

“I think we have amazing teachers in all of the public school aspects here. The OASIS program, all the contemporary classrooms as well as the Montessori classrooms. But every kid does not fit every teacher and every model,” said Tina Whitman, a parent whose child went through all three years of the public school’s Montessori program. “Just two years ago we were talking about expanding that program. … If we have a waiting list that means we need a bigger program, not to cut it.”

Jami Mitchell, a parent of two children who were Montessori class students, said that the well-established program has proven itself to be successful. She added that she hears the teachers’ perspective and honors what they think but she believes that the children’s experience is equally as important. The public school’s Montessori program is beneficial to the public school, she explained, because it feeds children into the system, where they stay throughout the rest of their education.

“There’s obviously a difference of opinions here this evening, but in the end, every single person in this room and everybody on the outside of this room wants the absolute best things for our kids. And I think that is abundantly clear,” said Kevin Ranker, State Senator and father of a Montessori student. “It’s about diversity of teaching models; we just heard it’s about meeting the needs of all students. Well, I believe that is exactly why we’ve had a successful Montessori program in this school for 15 years. Kids learn in different ways.”

The parent of a pending Montessori first-grader, Dana Thompson-Carver commended the school board and said they have a “super hard job.” She explained the board members have to be accountable, keep the school on track, set goals and make difficult decisions. She said she read a quote recently that the sign of an ineffective school board member is one who rubber stamps everything handed to them by the superintendent. She asked the board to go home and question whether they are asking the right questions and whether they have all the facts.

“Our children need alternative learning options. In removing this program, you remove a keystone in the arc of available opportunities on this island. This move can create, and it seems to be creating destabilization in our community I ask you for one year for review and resolution,” Carver said. “You are the gatekeepers to these children’s future and I ask you to act accordingly. Your decision is directly impacting the educational future of my child … I believe it would be an injustice to our children to cancel this program to the incoming first-graders and all following children. I believe in choice, I believe in opportunities, I believe we can have more choice and more opportunities on this island.”

Representing 150 Orcas Islanders – families of past, present and future Montessori school students – parent Georgette Wong gave testimony to the board on the benefits of a Montessori education. She referenced a study recently performed in South Carolina wherein, she said, Montessori students were most likely to succeed and less likely to have disciplinary incidents.

“For children to succeed in the future, they need creativity, imagination, intrinsic motivation and the ability to collaborate with others. Montessori helps with all of these. So we stand for more choices for children,” Wong said. “We appreciate that you’re going to bring this up for further discussion come June 18 and we’re looking forward to working with you.”

Wong and Carver both said that they are willing to help in whatever fundraising needs to be done in order to continue the Montessori program. Both parents requested that the school board allow more time for the teachers and parents to come to some sort of equitable solution, beginning with allowing the incoming first-grade students to be included in the Montessori class. The school board will reconvene at 5 p.m. on June 18 to discuss the future of the public school’s Montessori program.

“There’s a reason why this school district has the largest alternative learning program in the state. It’s because we respect the diversity of education and the needs of each individual kids,” Ranker said, adding that the Montessori class reflects that and it should continue. “We are all motivated by kindness and love for our children and their future.”