Montessori charter school proposed

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

The Kenai Peninsula may get a new school next fall.

Susan Larned, a Soldotna pre-school director, has submitted a letter of intent to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to open a Montessori primary school.

To make the school a reality, Larned must submit a detailed proposal for district and state approval.

"Now we are in the process of writing a full proposal, and the deadline is Jan. 1," she said.

The proposal is to open Central Peninsula Montessori School for children in kindergarten through grade three. The enrollment target for the first year is two classes of 21 students each, one of kindergartners and the other combining grades one through three. The classes would meet in Soldotna Elementary School.

"Eventually we will expand and have more classes and have fourth, fifth and sixth grades," she said.

Montessori schools are named after Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who lived from 1870 to 1952 and was a pioneer in child psychology and teaching methods. The Montessori method stresses children's natural curiosity and gives them freedom to explore a rich, multisensory learning environment at their own pace and initiative.

Larned said she first learned about Montessori schools in 1974. She sent her own five children to them and was impressed by what she saw.

"I've seen over the years what they do and how well it works for the children," she said.

"One of the main reasons it works is children are trained, and they are self-directed."

In 1994, Larned started the Ridgeway Preschool just north of Soldotna. In 1999, she became certified as an official Montessori educator at the St. Nicholas Training Center in England and changed her school's name to Ridgeway Montessori Preschool.

Surrounded by busy preschoolers and the colorful, hands-on educational toys characteristic of Montessori schools, she spoke enthusiastically of the Montessori approach. She described the current school and her plans for the charter school.

"I think there is an advantage for every single child," she said.

The school is relaxed and low-key. Students are in constant motion, helping each other and trying out new things. The program builds confidence, community, independence, self-control and the enthusiasm to tackle challenging situations, she said.

Larned also is certified to teach art to all grades in the state of Alaska and served six years on the peninsula's school board during the 1990s.

She said she intends to find another teacher who is doubly certified by the state and the Montessori foundation to teach alongside her at the new school.

According to the North American Montessori Teachers' Association Web site, there are more than 4,000 private schools and more than 200 public schools with Montessori-styled programs in the United States.

In Anchorage, Denali Elemen-tary School classes are mostly Montessori now, she said.

Larned said she has been considering the charter school option for a long time.

The peninsula's first charter schools opened in 1997, after changes in state law allowed peninsula residents to create up to three charter schools in partnership with the public school district. Three schools opened. Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai and Fireweed Academy in Homer remain open, but BayView Charter School in Seward closed in 1999.

The peninsula has had a vacant slot for a charter school ever since, and Larned is the first to formally file to fill it.

Under new state rules adopted this year, however, the restrictions on charter schools have been loosened, and more charter schools will be permitted in the future.

Larned submitted a letter of intent to the school board in October. Her full proposal will go through extensive review early in 2002, she said.

The Ridgeway Montessori Preschool has been growing and is bursting at the seams. Parents have asked her to expand it to serve older children, she wrote in her draft proposal.

"I really hope that our school just takes off," she said.

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