With sagging enrollment and the school’s second century in the near future, St. Patrick Catholic School’s leadership decided the time was right to embark on a first for the Spokane Diocese – offering a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade Montessori program.
The budget was “perilous,” said Rev. Kenny St. Hilaire, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church. “St. Pat’s legacy is that of a tight-knit community, and that’s great for people who know that. But we need to get people in the door.”
Montessori schools are scarce around the Inland Northwest, specifically those offering K-5, but the popularity appears to be growing. Spokane Public Schools, for example, offers a first-through-sixth grade program, and has been forced for several years to choose students via lottery due to long waiting lists for the program.
St. Patrick officials hope some of the students who aren’t chosen or can’t enroll in other Montessori schools, will consider the Catholic school tucked into a Hillyard neighborhood.
Additionally, “Montessori aligns with the Catholic understanding of the whole person; acknowledge, foster and celebrate the unique giftedness of each child,” St. Hilaire said.
The teaching method was created by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. It allows children to be more in charge of their own learning by creating an environment of intrinsic exploration. Most classrooms are comprised of a three-year age span, such as ages 3-5, 6-8 and 9-11, which allows the children to become more comfortable with their teacher and fellow students. Also, children can learn from other children.
“That building of a community is really important, that’s key,” said Pat Manz, who has owned Woodland Montessori for nearly three decades. A teacher at the school is a St. Patrick parishioner, and she’s been educating St. Hilaire about the teaching method.
Manz added, “There’s nothing more powerful than being in a mixed group and seeing someone doing something and thinking: I want to do that, too. To be with children that are not too much different or too much older, makes it look like they can do it, too.”
St. Aloysius Catholic School, which is also in the Spokane Diocese, has a Montessori preschool program that is quite popular, said Superintendent Duane Schafer.
“We’ve never had Montessori program with the elementary grades, so this will be a test. This will be a new perspective for St. Pat’s,” Shafer said.
St. Patrick’s is in transition this year. Only sixth, seventh and eighth graders as well as preschoolers remain in the former K-8 school.
“The reason we kept the middle schoolers was because those are tough years,” St. Hilaire said. Principal Shane O’Doherty said “everyone is in the front row.”
Meanwhile, St. Hilaire and O’Doherty are gathering materials and looking for a teacher with the appropriate credentials.
The program will start by adding kindergarteners in the fall, and then first-, second- and third-graders in 2014-15. The fourth through sixth grade classes will be grown from the younger students. The tuition will be $5,040.
Said St. Hilaire, “The rebuilding process will start small, but with growing interest and a constantly improving program, the St. Patrick community hopes to see its school thrive once more.”