Growing up -- and out

Montessori Charter School looking to add new class

Posted: Monday, December 02, 2002

Susan Larned's dreams are coming true.

In 1995, the Soldotna woman founded Ridgeway Preschool using the Montessori educational program and hoping to expand the program's use on the Kenai Peninsula.

This year, she did just that.

The Montessori Charter School became the newest addition to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District this fall.

And now, as the second quarter of the academic year gets under way, the school already is looking to expand.

'We have found they do plateau. They get saturated. It's like if you eat fish every day, eventually you want something else. They learn something until they're done, then they move on.'

--Linda Sisson, committee member

Montessori Charter School

At present, the school uses two classrooms at Soldotna Elemen-tary to provide Montessori education to a class of kindergartners and a class of 6- to 9-year-olds.

But it's growing fast.

Linda Sisson, a member of the school's academic policies committee, said the school hopes to add at least one more class of 6- to 9-year-olds next year, and maybe even a class of 9- to 12-year-olds.

School directors also are investigating other facilities for the school and hoping to encourage any teachers displaced by staff reductions in the district to seek Montessori certification and join the school's ranks.

"If we don't expand by one more classroom, my concern is that kids who want to get in will not be able to," Sisson said. "It would be really painful to turn kids away."

Plus, she added, the school is a great way to help keep kids in the district.

Contrary to popular belief, the charter school is a public institution and a part of the borough school district, though it offers an alternative approach to education.

Sisson said the school is not taking students away from the district's traditional schools as she fears many people believe. Rather, it is adding to the district's student base by bringing in students from outside the district.

In fact, according to figures she provided, of the 43 students at the school this year, 28 are new to the district -- 18 are kindergartners and 10 attended schools outside the public school system last year.

"In order to keep kids in the district, alternatives like this need to be available," she said. "Some kids do great in a traditional classroom, and some need a more individual approach."

She should know. A mother of four, Sisson has been involved with the Montessori program since her son, now in fifth grade, was in Larned's preschool. She said he thrived in the environment, but with no other options available, he's been in traditional classrooms since first grade.

When it came time for her daughter to leave Larned's program last year, though, Sisson decided to opt for home school instead of the traditional school system. Now, her daughter and another younger child attend the charter school.

"I can see the difference," Sisson said. "She's reading fluently. My son had a more difficult time. She pushes to come to school; she wants to be here at 8 every day.

"In general, there's more enthusiasm for learning."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with traditional schools, she said. The Montessori program is simply an educational alternative that works for her family and many others.

The Montessori system, more than 100 years old, is based on self-directed learning. The classrooms at the charter school have no desks and few planned lessons. Instead, students choose educational materials from open shelves and teach themselves.

At any given time, students may be working with counting beads, which help them learn a number of math concepts with hands-on activities, writing stories or researching topics of interest.

For example, in the 6- to 9-year-old room on Wednesday, one group of students had a display of shells laid out on the floor. They read about the shells in books, drew pictures of the shelves, looked at them under microscopes and learned about symmetry and the difference between bivalves and univalves. It was math, science, art and language all at once.

Nearby, a boy sat working with number cards. One sat on the floor assembling a string of counting beads. Across the room, another was deep in a book.

The benefit, Sisson said, is that when students choose their own lessons, they are more excited about learning and more well-behaved.

And, she added, they still get a well-rounded education.

"We have found they do plateau. They get saturated. It's like if you eat fish every day, eventually you want something else. They learn something until they're done, then they move on," Sisson said.

"It's very carefully thought out, so it's structured in that sense. The materials are designed to teach to meet standards. Students become good readers, fluent readers, enthusiastic readers and have an understanding of math."

And, she insisted, it's fun.

"They love this. There's not one kids who doesn't love this. They love to go to school."

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