Children’s Kiva pursues Montessori expansion

Group wants K-8 charter school in Re-1 district

A group of local parents, as well as former and current faculty of The Children’s Kiva, have made public their intent to start a Montessori charter school in Cortez for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Children’s Kiva, just north of Parque de Vida on Empire Street, already uses the Montessori curriculum but only admits preschool and kindergartners. Most students then matriculate into the conventional public school system. The Kiva was founded in 1987.

Anna Cole, unofficial spokeswoman for the group, said the push for expansion came from celebrating the Kiva’s 25th anniversary.

“We rounded up the founders. It seemed like the Kiva’s stability and capacity were at a point we could take on this project,” said Cole, who has one child at the Kiva and another at Manaugh Elementary.

The group needs clearance from the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school board to forge ahead and secure funds. As a charter, the Montessori school would be run independently but use taxpayer money. Advocates are working on an application to submit later this summer.

If approved, the program would not launch until the 2014-15 school year.

For Cole and others, it’s a matter of choice.

“It will offer an educational option to families desiring different methods, approaches and philosophies of education. We believe this will help retain students who would likely move out of the district to attend neighboring district schools,” Cole said by email.

“We are parents of Re-1 students who have consistently volunteered at our schools, attended parent meetings, shared our concerns about the quality of educational instruction and programming through appropriate channels — teachers, principals, superintendent — and organized meetings in support of educational programs we value in the district,” she continued. “We have been actively advocating for our children ... but feel that as time goes on, we have yet to see the positive changes we hope for.”

At last week’s school board meeting, the announcement was met with ambivalence.

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it,” said superintendent Alex Carter. “The math kills our district.”

Carter’s unease spoke to the fear many public school administrators have with charters — that they siphon vital per-pupil funding away from the district’s coffers.

Cole expected some degree of resistance but believes it’s misplaced. A larger Montessori school would not be a money drain, she said. Rather, it would merely redistribute funds around inside the district. The program could even be a net gain for Re-1, she argued, because it might attract students from neighboring districts.

“I’m optimistic that, with time, they’ll see us as an asset, not a threat,” she said.

Right now the logistics — like finding a facility and teachers — are unclear. Without official consent from Re-1, the group doesn’t want to act prematurely. Cole and others have begun collecting feedback to gauge demand for Montessori enrollment. She expected the charter would start out with 60 students, with a maximum five-year “build-out” of about 140.

Cole disputed the notion that Montessori classrooms are haphazard cauldrons of chaos.

“It’s a misconception that children are just running around aimlessly without guidance. Montessori is actually quite structured, where the kids can make choices within a limited range of options,” she said. “It (nurtures) critical thinking, self-control and self-discipline skills.”

Re-1 authorizes two other charter schools. Battle Rock, 15 miles down McElmo Canyon, teaches elementary-age students. Its enrollment fluctuates between 30 and 50. Southwest Open School, meanwhile, accepts high school-age teenagers up until about age 20.

Manaugh Elementary has a small Montessori pilot program — this year 28 students were enrolled, according to principal Donetta Dehart. Standardized test scores last year were about equal for Montessori students versus their conventionally-taught peers. Dehart said the Montessori students scored slightly higher in reading and writing and lower in math, but the differences were marginal.

Cole said the charter application must be submitted by September, and she looks forward to further talks with Re-1 this summer.

“My fingers are crossed this doesn’t turn into a controversial issue,” she said. “I’m optimistic. Colorado is a charter-friendly state.”

Charter schools have proliferated in Colorado since they were first authorized 20 years ago. As of 2012, 180 charters were operating across the state, serving about 83,000 students, according to an April 2013 report from the Colorado Department of Education.

If Re-1 rejects the proposal, the group can appeal to the State Board of Education.