Montessori families criticize charter school |

Montessori families criticize charter school

John Colson

As the Ross Montessori School in Carbondale gets set to open its doors at the end of August, organizers point to the ethnic diversity of the new school’s student population and support from parents as indications of a bright future.But some say the school is headed down the wrong path.And the problem, two of those critics say, is not with the Montessori-style education that will be taught at the school.Rather, they say, the problem is the Montessori school – at least in effect – is sending a message that exclusionary, segregationist practices are acceptable in a community that has a growing Latino population.Alice Laird’s two children – Fiona, 6, and Liam, 4 – both were students at the Mt. Sopris Montessori Preschool and Fiona also attended the kindergarten Montessori “strand” at Carbondale Elementary School. “Montessori has been a huge part of their upbringing,” she said.Montessori education, she said, “is a great program.”But when Carbondale Elementary dropped its Montessori program and the Ross Montessori School was founded to meet local demand, Laird and her husband had to make a decision.They could keep their children at what used to be known as Carbondale Elementary School but is now called Crystal River Elementary School West Campus in light of the pending merger of Carbondale Elementary and Crystal River Elementary under the Crystal River roof.Or they could enroll their children at Ross Montessori.The decision, Laird said, “was not an overnight type of thing.” The couple agonized over their affinity for Montessori-style learning, but it was their commitment to a strong public education system that won out, Laird said.At Ross, she maintained, “It’s not an open-enrollment public school.” By setting up a school that selects students by lottery, she argued, Ross Montessori is “using public money to create closed environments that end up segregating children by class and ethnicity.”Laird said Ross Montessori’s claim that its enrollment is between 20 and 25 percent Latino and thus somewhat reflective of Carbondale’s ethnic makeup as determined by the 2000 census made her uncomfortable.Laird, a trustee on Carbondale’s Town Council, believes the town’s percentage of Hispanic residents is far higher than that, perhaps as high as 40-50 percent, based on studies conducted by town planners.She feels parents are “using Montessori as a way of having their children in a more Anglo environment. It’s become sort of a smokescreen. They want an environment where they know they’re not a minority.”And, she said, “By pulling all those kids out [of the traditional public schools], you’re creating an environment [at Carbondale Elementary and, ultimately, Crystal River Elementary] that could be 80 percent Latino, if not higher.”And the issue is not restricted to ethnicity, she said. She noted that the Ross Montessori lottery for the coming school year closed in the spring, when many poor immigrant families did not even know they could participate. Laird said the children of those immigrant families will end up in the traditional school. She predicted that once the expansion of Crystal River Elementary is completed, the Carbondale Elementary students move to their new building and Ross Montessori is at full enrollment, the result will be “one school where students are disproportionately poor.”Another Carbondale parent, Debbie Bruell, also has opted to keep her two children in the “traditional” classes rather than continue their Montessori education for similar reasons.”I’m getting really excited about what is going on there [at Crystal River Elementary], and it was an easy choice,” Bruell said. “I’m very concerned about having another charter school in our little town.”She said she believes the Ross Montessori School has a “tendency to segregate” on the basis of ethnicity and socioeconomic standing.”I think it’s so important to get a really good mix [of ethnic and socioeconomic groups] at a young age,” she said. Such exposure, she said, prevents kids from developing discriminatory habits early in life.Both Laird and Bruell noted that at Crystal River Elementary some 45 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunches, and both doubted that the number of qualified students at the Montessori school would be anywhere near that.And, Bruell said, both Latino and Anglo parents often are “scared” by the prospect of their children having “minority” status in a classroom.So, she said, “It’s no one’s fault” that the fear is leading to a sort of de-facto segregation – it’s just bad for a community and should be avoided.”We cannot give up on noncharter schools,” Laird said. The challenge, she said, “is how to make nonexclusionary schools [into] great schools.”John Colson’s e-mail address is

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