Parents Back City’s 1st Montessori Charter

Melissa Bailey Photo“Hallelujah!” declared Kaye Harvey: If a new pre-K charter Montessori opens this fall, she said, she’ll have somewhere to send the tots who finish her tiny Montessori operation on Grand Avenue.

Harvey (pictured at left), executive director of the Alexis Hill Montessori, was one of some five dozen adults who showed up Thursday evening to the Benjamin Jepson School on Lexington Avenue.

They gathered there, many with kids in tow, for a public hearing on a proposed charter Montessori school, which a group of local parents and other supporters are hoping to open this fall with 69 New Haven kids aged 3 to 5.

Elm City Montessori School would be New Haven’s first public Montessori school, according to co-founder and parent leader Eliza Halsey. It would be a “local charter school,” which means it would receive funding and oversight from the New Haven school system and have unionized teachers, yet operate under its own charter with its own curriculum.

Thursday marked the beginning of a public approval process. Based on feedback through the public forum and parent and teacher surveys, the school district will make a recommendation on whether to open the school. The proposal would then need approval from the local and state boards of education.

The evening brought almost entirely positive reviews during a nearly two-hour public hearing.

Harvey gave perhaps the most enthusiastic support. “Hallelujah!” she cried. “I never thought I would see this happen.”

Harvey runs a small Montessori program serving eight kids from 6 weeks to 3 years old. She said her kids get so hooked on the Montessori model that it’s tough for them to leave at age 3. She heralded the chance for those kids to continue a Montessori method, which she said promotes “creativity, freedom and the excitement of learning.” Two Alexis Hill parents, Karina D’Avila and Ayquel Cepeda, also stood in support.

John Freeman, a board member of the Elm City Montessori School, kicked off the evening by introducing the Montessori model. Freeman is the principal of the Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet in Hartford, which would serve as a model for the New Haven school.

The method, invented a century ago by Italian physician Maria Montessori, involves mixed-age classrooms and letting kids pace themselves and discover how to do an activity on their own. He said the idea has been widely tested: There are 22,000 Montessori schools worldwide. In the U.S., there are 4,500 private Montessoris and 500 public ones.

New Haven has one public “modified Montessori” classroom at Gateway Community College and two private Montessoris in Edgewood and on Grand Avenue, but no public Montessori schools as of yet.

Students are grouped in two multi-aged classrooms, Freeman said: ages 3 to 6 and 6 to 9. They move up when they’re ready. The multi-aged classroom helps teachers get to know students on a deeper level, because they stay with kids for three years. Each year, the have to adjust to only seven or eight new kids. The setup allows kids more leadership, he said, because the 6-year-olds “run the environment” in their classrooms.

Instead of sitting in chairs and listening to a lecture, Freeman said, students move at their own pace, learning independently after eight to 10 minutes of instruction from a teacher.

New Haven did launch a short-lived Montessori experiment inside the district at one time, recalled Superintendent Reginald Mayo in a recent interview. He said the method was too costly because teachers need special training and special tactile equipment that helps kids learn life skills.

Unlike traditional charter schools, which are funded on a per-pupil basis by the state, a local charter would be funded directly by the school district.

Halsey (at right in photo), one of three moms who came up with the idea for the school, said the school would focus on “holistic development of kids,” not just test scores. The school aims to grow to serve 209 kids up to grad 4 over five years, at which point its charter would be up for renewal. The eventual goal is to build a full-fledged K-8 school. She said the proposal would alleviate a population crunch New Haven is experiencing in the early grades; create a racially and economically diverse environment; and bring about child-centered learning.

The proposal comes with the blessing of Dave Low, a vice president of the city teachers union. Low, who sits on the board of the proposed charter, said he looks forward to “welcoming the teachers at Elm City Montessori School into our union.”

East Rock Alderwoman Jessica Holmes added her vote of support: “This is the sort of opportunity that we really need to invest in.” She said she visited the Hartford school that the school will be based on and was “moved” by what she saw.

Several voices of support came from parents who struck out in the city’s highly competitive magnet lottery.

Others had experience with the Montessori model, either through their own childhoods or their kids. Yuri Maciel-Andrews, whose son attended a Montessori school, called the proposal “a wonderful model for school change.” She sits on the board of the Montessori School On Edgewood, which serves kids up to 5 years old. Though the Edgewood school would be competing with the charter during the younger grades, “we would welcome a K-8 school” in the Montessori model, she said.

One note of caution came from Jennifer Wells-Jackson, an African-American mother who grew up in the Hill. She noted a lack of racial and economic diversity among the moms and dads gathered at Jepson Thursday.

“Why don’t we have more Fair Haven parents here?” she asked. Or more parents from Dixwell or Newhallville? “What about the parents who need—really need—an education?” She questioned how much outreach was done to parents in those neighborhoods.

Wells-Jackson said she was concerned that she had heard the school was originally meant to be in the Hill, but now there is talk of it opening in a swing space across town, in the Heights. The school district does not provide busing for pre-K kids.

Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who along with two school board members heard feedback during the meeting, was asked after the meeting where the school would be. He said the location has not been finalized.

Halsey thanked Wells-Jackson for her questions. She said the school would ultimately be “rooted in a neighborhood,” but in the first years it will sit in a temporary space. If the charter gets approved, she said, kids will be admitted by lottery sometime around June, without a neighborhood preference.

As to the outreach question, Halsey said it has been “tricky to balance how much time we spend outreaching while we don’t have seats to offer.” If the charter does get approved, she said, organizers will recruit from Head Start programs and cast their net more widely.

The school board originally had aimed to take a vote Monday on the Montessori proposal; that has been pushed back to the next school board meeting, on May 13, according to Harries.

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posted by: EdgewoodMom on April 19, 2013  9:59am

I am a Fair Haven mom that was not able to attend last night. But, I completely and utterly support the Elm City Montessori School! I hope they will be able to do a lottery in June.

posted by: mechanic on April 19, 2013  11:17am

While I think it’s unfair to fault a small parents’ group that has worked so hard to put together the charter application for not also focusing on marketing the as yet non-existent school, NHPS will definitely have to do more to market the school than they have done thus far with their pre-K programs. 

One example is the East Rock School pre-K program, which seems to be promoted completely by word of mouth.  This is a free 1/2 day program that is severely under-enrolled because nobody knows about it.  I received an email from a friend about it, and looked for more information on to no avail.

posted by: FairHavenRes on April 19, 2013  11:22am

Also a Fair Haven mom here who fully supports the Montessori school and am eagerly awaiting the verdict!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 19, 2013  12:48pm

Will they educate special-needs STUDENTS? How about ELL STUDENTS.