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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 20 June 2007

If Tammy Kennedy has her way, Northeast Portland could be home to this city's first free, public Montessori school.
Kennedy, the founder and director of the Montessori of Alameda school, has been trying to bring affordable Montessori instruction to this part of town for three years.
"A lot of families want to continue their child's Montessori education," Kennedy, whose Alameda school offers pre-school and kindergarten instruction, said. "(But) most families can't afford another eight years (of private instruction)."
Affordability can be a stumbling block for many fans of the student-directed Montessori program.
Right now, all of the Montessori schools in Portland are private and, with tuition costs that can reach $8,000 a year, largely out of reach for the economically disadvantaged.
This creates a disparity for many Portland families who can't afford to pay private tuition, but who still want their child to have the benefits of a Montessori education.
Under Kennedy's plan, the new Montessori school – which would be called the Ivy School – would be a Portland Public Schools charter school.
Like other charter schools in Portland, The Ivy School would be tuition-free for students. Already, the proposed Ivy School has received a $285,000 grant to cover start-up costs for the first two years.
It takes roughly $35,000 to set up a Montessori classroom and, according to Kennedy, if the school hopes to stay open for seven years it will need three classrooms.
Additional funding will come from the school district itself. Charter schools receive a per-student stipend (about $500 a month), which Kennedy says is enough to sustain the school. Fund-raising will likely be a normal practice, and there are plans to establish an Ivy School Foundation.
So far, the response to the proposed school has been positive.
About 15 Montessori teachers have applied and said they would be willing to take a cut in pay to teach at the public school level.
A June 5 meeting to discuss the proposed charter school attracted so many parents it was standing room only.
"That's a good problem," said Lisa Christie, a local parent who sits on the Ivy School's design team.
However, most of the parents who came to the June 5 meeting at Augustana Lutheran Church in Irvington were White – a fact that disappoints Ivy School leaders, who hoped that siting the school in Northeast Portland would add to the school's diversity.
Amie Allor, a certified Montessori instructor whose child attended public Montessori in Arizona, says Portland needs a diverse public program.
"The essence of Montessori is studying different cultures, languages (and ideas)," Allor said.
Designed more than 100 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator who strongly believed that children were natural, competent learners capable of making their own decisions, Montessori schools typically teach young children the techniques of learning by allowing students to pursue their areas of personal interest within the curriculum.
Teachers are called "guides" and students learn in three-year age groups, which allows older students to mentor and teach the younger ones. The Ivy School plans to begin in 2008 with grades 1 through 3, adding subsequent grades the following two years.
One of the Ivy School's key components will be the addition of bilingual teaching assistants in the classroom. Each Montessori-accredited teacher will have one assistant in the classroom who will speak nothing but Spanish.
According to Kennedy, this practice will allow students to learn a second language as young children, almost entirely by absorption.
"While they're young we want to make sure those connections are there," said Kennedy. "Since we've started offering that, more and more native Spanish speakers are enrolling."
The practice was implemented a year ago at Montessori of Alameda, and Christie said her son is quickly learning English and Spanish.
"I have a 2-year-old and he can say stuff in Spanish, I'll say 'Hola, Evan' and he'll know exactly what I'm saying," Christie said.
The language program – one adult speaking English, one speaking another language — is something that Jennifer Davidson, executive director of Montessori Institute Northwest, says is quite common.
"That's the way it should be done," she said. "It was a method Dr. Montessori advocated."
The Ivy Schools program will reflect other common Montessori practices: Students will be grouped by grade – 1 to 3, 4 to 6, and 7 to 8 – to learn language arts, advanced math, botany and zoology, history, geography and science, as well as foreign language study, music, art, physical education, field trips, community service projects, drama, computers and more.
Each Montessori accredited teacher is trained in each field, causing a seamless transition from one activity to the next, Kennedy said. Students move at their own pace, and older students are encouraged to mentor younger ones, encouraging a learning environment that emphasizes individual problem solving techniques.
Although Kennedy's Montessori at Alameda school offers financial aid, the director says the school can "only offer so much financial aid to continue offering quality programs."
"We decided it was necessary to put a tuition-free option out there for these families," Kennedy said "Two (reduced-cost) spaces for each classroom (at Alameda) isn't enough."
Kennedy and other Ivy School organizers must submit a complete application to Portland Public Schools by July 16 to start the charter school process. According to Cliff Brush, Portland Public Schools' charter school manager, after the application is in, the district's charter schools subcommittee will hold a public hearing and the school founders will have an opportunity to clarify questions. After this, the school would need to get permission from the district superintendent as well as the School Board.
Last year, of the three charter school applicants that applied for charters, none were approved – two withdrew their applications and one was rejected. Incomplete curriculum plan and a business plan that doesn't demonstrate financial security are the main reasons charter schools are rejected. Another big factor in a charter school's success is demonstration of need in the district, Brush said.
"(The question is) did they show demand for a program and can they fill an unmet need," Brush said.
The Ivy School's leaders will know by November 2007 if they've been granted charter school status, but Kennedy and Christie remain hopeful. They would like the community to weigh in on the proposed school and will hold informational meetings throughout the summer.
The next meeting will be held at 7 p.m. July 10 at Maranatha Church of God, 4222 N.E. 12th Ave. Daycare will be provided.

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