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Growing Montessori

Committee to plan for a Montessori middle school program faces questions of where, when and how.

After five years in Drew Model School’s Montessori program, Stephen Moran doesn’t look at school work as a chore.

“I enjoy going to school, because the Montessori curriculum makes it so much fun,” he said. Stephen, 10, who will be entering fifth grade at Drew in the fall, has been in the Montessori program there since he was a preschooler.

At the July 1 School Board meeting, he told board members he would like to stay a while longer, and urged them to consider starting a middle school program based on Maria Montessori’s education principles. “I would very much enjoy going into a Montessori middle school,” Stephen told the board.

School Board members voted unanimously to approve a planning process for a Montessori middle school program, possibly to be housed at Drew, that could start as early as fall 2006.

A planning committee for the program will be formed this autumn. School staff plan for a two-year implementation process, but assistant superintendent for instruction Mark Johnston said a pilot program could be in place earlier.

The School Board knew that Stephen Moran wasn’t the only person from Drew who wanted the chance to continue Montessori education beyond elementary school. “We have a lot of interested Montessori parents,” said Board member Dave Foster.

They will push for it to open, but students will determine the success of the program. “Middle school years are tough years for some kids,” said Risa Browerd, Stephen Moran’s mother and head of the Drew Model School Association’s middle school committee. “Maybe there’s a niche here that will fit for some kids.”

<b>BRINGING MONTESSORI PROGRAMS</b> to middle school poses some problems, problems the planning committee will have to solve in the coming year.

Montessori education puts students from different grades in one classroom and stresses hands-on learning styles. In addition, Montessori theory encourages older or more advanced students to teach their peers some lessons.

Middle school classes stick to the basic ideas of Montessori education, said Cindy Lanham, director of the Montessori School of Alexandria. Open since 1971, the school offers classes from preschool through fifth grade, and began offering classes through eighth grade six years ago.

“There’s some difference, in degree of intensity,” she said. “It’s going to be the same sort of thing, working at your own pace.”

A memo to Superintendent Robert Smith, from retiring assistant superintendent for instruction Kathy Grove, points out that Montessori’s focus on hands-on learning can be tougher to apply to middle school’s more abstract concepts.

Hands-on education does not immediately lend itself to abstract concepts, Lanham said. But Montessori classes rely on some resources year after year, and students can adapt those to science, math or history lessons as they grow more abstract.

<b>ANY MIDDLE SCHOOL</b> must be open to, and feasible for, all Arlington students, Grove pointed out, not just graduates of Drew’s Montessori elementary program. “We should not establish a program that … requires entry at age three,” Grove wrote.

Those challenges are central to establishing a Montessori middle school, said Lanham. As a private school, Montessori School of Alexandria’s programs are based on enrollment, and there has been a two-year lapse in their middle school.

Still, Lanham said, “one full class went through. It’s a way for kids to continue on. Most had been in Montessori since preschool, and their parents felt really strongly about them continuing to learn that way.”

Students new to Montessori can make their way in a Montessori middle school, she said. “We did bring in somebody who had been in a traditional school until sixth grade.”

But success in that case really depends on the student, Lanham said. “A lot of the materials are based on things they learned in preschool or elementary, so it can be difficult coming in later. Because of who this girl was, it was very easy, a very fluid transition.”

That would be true in Arlington as well, said Browerd. “Montessori builds on itself. You need to look at the individual.”

<b>MANY MIDDLE SCHOOL</b> Montessori students would come from Drew. “My hope and desire as a Montessori parent is that this program can be in place by the time my daughter’s leaving the fifth grade,” said Monique O’Grady, mother of a rising fifth grader at Drew.

That’s an advantage, said Bryant Monroe, a Drew parent, because Drew has educated the students for the program, and built up a supportive parent community. “We have a huge advantage over places that started it out of whole cloth,” he said.

Eight elementary schools play host to a total of 16 Montessori preschool classes. Not all of those students will go to Drew, but they will be the prime candidates for a Montessori middle school. “We need to get information out to the preschools,” Monroe said.

There are still many questions to be answered, Grove wrote in her memo: How much would a Montessori middle school program cost? Where would it be located? How could students there take part in high school credit classes or after school activities?

Both Monroe and O’Grady were members of a small exploratory committee, and came to the board meeting to support the proposal. But others will lead the way from here, O’Grady said. “We’re not the only parents with kids who will go through the program. A lot of other parents want to be in on the ground floor.”