11/05/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Montessori School Petition Launched In New Haven By Parents Shut Out Of Pre-K Spots

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Parents who feel shut out of New Haven pre-K spots have proposed a school reform idea of their own: Open a new, parent-backed, public Montessori school for grades pre-K to 6.

Some 170 parents pitched the idea in a petition recently delivered to the school board. Citing a "dramatic overflow burden facing our public schools in the elementary years," they called on the school district to open a new Montessori school, or some pilot version, in the fall of 2013.

The proposal adds a grassroots, parent-led suggestion into the mix as the school district plans for an expected flood of students. A panel considering the issue has proposed building three new pre-K-8 schools and doubling the size of another one.

Joan Bosson-Heenan, a mother of two, was one of a dozen parents who showed up to the school board last week to air their proposal. She told the board that her family struck out for the past three years in the magnet lottery. She sent her son to a small parochial school and her daughter to a 19-student Modified Montessori classroom at Gateway Community College.

The Montessori 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.

Bosson-Heenan said her daughter has prospered at Gateway's classroom, because the method allows for "order, self-control and independence."

Beyond Gateway's one classroom, the city has private Montessoris in Edgewood and on Grand Avenue, but no public Montessori that's part of the school district.

Adding a New Haven Public Schools-run Montessori would "broaden education choices for families and help reduce the need for overflow elementary schools," the parents' petition reads. Read it here.

Laura McCargar is another mom who ended up at Gateway's lesser-known classroom in search of pre-K options. The college has one Modified Montessori class serving 19 kids age 3 to 5. The program has been running for 29 years, open not just to Gateway students and staff, but to members of the public. Fifteen of 19 seats are set aside for parents in the state-funded school readiness program, which accepts payment on a sliding scale.

McCargar said Aeriana has flourished at the Gateway program. The program is "valuable for young people who are strong-willed," she said with a loving glance towards her daughter.

Kia Levey, who has one child in private kindergarten at Leila Day, called on the board to include a public Montessori in its grant application to Race to the Top. This round of the federal competition invites districts to apply for money to create a personalized education for kids who are falling behind. New Haven plans to ask for up to $25 million; applications are due Tuesday.

Levey also asked the board to include parents in planning the Montessori program. She proposed a pre-K to 6 school serving ages 3 to 12.

Mayor John DeStefano, who sits on the school board and appoints its members, welcomed the proposal.

"It's great parents came out and are exploring choice," DeStefano said.

He asked Levey if parents would be willing to build the school one grade at a time instead of opening a new K-6 school all at once.

Levey replied that parents are open to any solution--including converting an existing kindergarten classroom into a pilot Montessori room. Her group invited the board to join parents in touring public Montessori programs in Bridgeport and Hartford.

DeStefano said as parents move forward with the proposal, they should make sure to "reconcile it" with the plans for a new elementary school on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University. That school, which the district and university have been planning for a year and a half, is set to offer three grades each of pre-K to 4 and two self-contained classes for kids with autism.

After the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who has been talking to parents about the Montessori, said he'd take the parents' suggestion into consideration.

The district's application to Race to the Top won't specifically mention Montessori, he said. But it includes a broader proposal to "develop innovative, personalized school models." If the city scores the grant, he said, the Montessori could be one option of spending the money. And "even if we don't get the money, we can still talk about" the Montessori model.

A visit to the Early Childhood Center at Gateway's new downtown campus last week offered a glimpse into what a public Montessori in New Haven might look like.

After student teacher Christal Dunaville-Wingate read a book introducing the idea of "capacity," students broke up into small groups to explore the concept in hands-on activities.

McCargar's daughter, Aeriana, stirred banana bread in the classroom kitchen while Minh Nguyen and Colin "CJ" LeBel transferred water using various measuring cups.

A few other kids sat at the official Montessori table, which has activities designed to replicate the teaching tools Montessori developed at her Casa Dei Bambini in Rome. The tools aim to help kids develop practical life skills by finding solutions to physical puzzles on their own.

Shawn Harrison matched 3-D objects to 2-D pictures of those objects. Next to him, Aleisha Moore contemplated how to put a pair of scissors in her hand.

Leasa Moon, an assistant teacher, walked over to help her fit her fingers through the right holes.

At the Montessori table, most of the activities have only one solution. Marjorie Weiner, director of the Early Learning Center, said the method works well with some kids who like structure and need to practice practical life skills. Other kids find the format "too rigid," she said.

The Montessori method is good for "at-risk" kids because the method provides structure, activities are individualized, and the apparati (such as fitting shaped blocks into corresponding holes) are self-correcting, said Prof. Ernestine Kirkland, Gateway's coordinator of early childhood special education. Kirkland, who did her doctoral dissertation on the Montessori method, added a literacy component at Gateway to tackle kids' deficiency in vocabulary.

Under the method, kids must master one skill before moving to the next. The approach works particularly well for kids those who may be impulsive or have trouble focusing, Kirkland said.

Back in the classroom, Shawn moved on from his matching activity and began buttoning buttons on a mock jacket.

"I did them all!" he announced.