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Lawrence school board approves Montessori program for New York Elementary

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The Lawrence school board narrowly approved implementing a Montessori program at New York Elementary this fall to serve 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and kindergarteners.

The board approved the program during its meeting Monday night on a 4-3 vote, with board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Kay Emerson and Andrew Nussbaum voting “no.”

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The estimated costs of materials and furniture necessary for the program is $8,764 for each of two classrooms, and the district is seeking to confirm that it can use capital outlay funds — in other words, funds from a different pot of money that would not worsen the district’s budget shortfall. 

Teachers in the program will also need to be trained and certified with Kansas licenses. The district has the option of hiring two Montessori-certified teachers who would need Kansas licenses, which would cost $7,500 each; or it could hire Kansas-certified teachers who need Montessori certification. Training, which would run from September through June, would cost $17,000 per teacher, and salaries would be $65,000 per teacher, on average. 

The Lawrence Schools Foundation has offered to help with some of the costs of training, Cynde Frick, executive director of finance, told the board. 

Since Montessori classrooms are multi-aged, the program will begin with kindergarteners and 3- and 4-year-olds in the fall, though the district is planning on expanding the program “as the opportunities come in the future,” said Cynthia Johnson, the district’s director of inclusion, engagement and belonging.

New York Elementary families will have “priority enrollment” in the Montessori program, though other families can apply for a transfer to attend the program. During the meeting, Johnson said that New York Elementary was chosen because it has “the highest free and reduced lunch rate.” 

Priority would also be given to kindergartners and children ages 3 and 4 who are considered “at risk,” and if any space remains, the district could enroll children who don’t meet “at risk” criteria and whose families would pay $4,800 per year for their 3- and 4-year-old kids to attend the program.

Families can also apply to transfer to a different school if they live within the New York boundaries, but Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the district hadn’t had any interest in transfers. 

Board member Kelly Jones shared concerns that New York families were only given the option to transfer to Cordley Elementary. She said she wouldn’t see an issue if a parent would prefer to transfer to a different school, and she’d be interested in opening up the transfer process, but she was “not hung up on that.” 

Lawrence school board member Kelly Jones asks questions as fellow board members Andrew Nussbaum and Paula Smith stand by during the board meeting on April 25, 2022. (Screenshot)

Jones was also concerned about after-school programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. The New York Elementary Boys and Girls Club offers after-school care for kindergartners, but the program isn’t licensed to care for 3- and 4-year-olds. 

“If I am a parent and my family is low-income, that after-school care is vital to my ability to participate in the program,” Jones said. 

Lewis responded that the district will likely have to “seek out some partnerships.”

“That’s something we’ll have to problem-solve,” he said.

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Board member Paula Smith also expressed some concerns about culturally relevant training for participating staff “to meet student needs and the diversity of students in our district.”

“Those are (a) few things that have been going through my head, and any potential unintended consequences of making the shift in the state that we’re in right now, considering the budget cuts and staffing and also considering negotiations with LEA and paraeducators union, how much of their time are going to be pulled into the Montessori and supporting that program?” Smith said; ultimately, though, she voted in favor of the plan. 

The district has already held informational meetings for families, which included a ThoughtExchange survey. Some of the responses seemed excited about the program — “This is an excellent option for parents who want their children to learn and grow” — though some expressed concern about proper training for teachers.

The district said in an agenda memo preceding the meeting that, of 95 Lawrence teachers who responded to an interest survey about Montessori certification, “91.6% indicated an interest in the Montessori approach to learning.” 

Lewis said that there are a couple of teachers who are ready to go into training this fall. 

Johnson led a presentation that included district staff and Montessori experts to showcase the “opportunities” that Montessori education might bring to Lawrence.

“This is a unique opportunity, first of all, to offer programming to all students and our families in our community, but also was an opportunity to be the first free public Montessori in the state of Kansas,” she said.

The board also heard from Angela Murray, director of KU’s Center for Montessori Research, and longtime Montessori teacher Jennifer Baker Powers, about some of the benefits and differences of the teaching method. 

In Montessori classrooms, students learn to be independent through self-directed work cycles, in which they receive one-on-one instruction with their teacher. One of the principles of Montessori education is that children are naturally curious and seek growth, which makes multi-age classrooms more beneficial, the presenters said.

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

More coverage of Lawrence Public Schools:

August Rudisell / Lawrence Times

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