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New teacher contract could help Spokane Public Montessori in push toward regaining status

Aug. 19, 2022 Updated Fri., Aug. 19, 2022 at 7:52 a.m.

Spokane Public Montessori school teacher Gayle Waner stopped by to collect items from her classroom before heading to a local park to have a picnic with some of her students Monday in Spokane.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Public Montessori school teacher Gayle Waner stopped by to collect items from her classroom before heading to a local park to have a picnic with some of her students Monday in Spokane. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Public Montessori no longer has official status as a Montessori-recognized school, and it’s unclear when it could regain that distinction.

However, parents are hoping to convince Spokane Public Schools to re-establish the “classroom-centric” style required for all Montessori-affiliated schools.

The teaching method has its roots in late-19th century Italy, when Maria Montessori founded a system that seeks to develop natural interests and activities rather than use formal practices. A Montessori classroom places an emphasis on hands-on learning and developing real-world skills.

Popular elements include mixed-age classrooms, student freedom (including their choices of activity), long blocks of uninterrupted work time and specially trained teachers.

The main issue for Spokane Montessori is the lack of an uninterrupted 3-hour morning work cycle for teachers, and the district’s practice of taking kids out of classrooms instead of bringing teachers to the students.

Spokane Public Montessori and Medicine Wheel Center is located at 1300 W. Knox Ave. in Spokane.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Public Montessori and Medicine Wheel Center is located at 1300 W. Knox Ave. in Spokane. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

“There’s not a specific person to blame, but the district and the administration don’t have a fundamental understanding of Montessori philosophy,” said Makaya Judge, president of the Community of Montessori Parents.

Judge and other parents said the district shouldn’t be “shuffling students down the hallway when teachers could be the ones to move around.”

However, based on the terms of the new tentative contract between the district and the Spokane Education Association, it appears the district and Montessori parents have made some progress.

Among other things, the contract promises that the district “will support Montessori standards to include that all classroom teacher/guides will be trained to standards set by the Association Montessori Internationale, that it will consult with AMI every three years and that it will provide a complete set of Montessori materials.”

“It’s a step in the right direction, even if it’s not everything the parents and teacher wanted,” Judge said. “But it’s an indication that the SEA backs the Montessori philosophy.”

In an email sent by spokesperson Sandra Jarrard, the district said it has “worked hard to create a schedule that allows for the most uninterrupted work cycle as possible for every staff member, and staff are integral in planning the school’s schedule each year.”

The district also cited a rule change implemented in 2019 by the international organization, requiring a 3-hour uninterrupted work cycle in order to continue to be recognized.

“We are unable to meet this requirement, due to the amount of prep time that would require of our teaching staff,” the district said, referring to provisions in the district’s contract with the Spokane Education Association.

Loss of the uninterrupted work cycle and a staff that wasn’t sufficiently certified cost the school its Montessori recognition. A scheduled visit from the international organization was deferred due to COVID.

Founded in 1985, Spokane Public Montessori serves more than 400 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. It is currently housed at the old Havermale facility in northwest Spokane.

Spokane Public Montessori and Medicine Wheel Center is located at 1300 West Know Avenue in Spokane.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Public Montessori and Medicine Wheel Center is located at 1300 West Know Avenue in Spokane. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Standards are high, with standardized test scores well above the district average.

However, Judge and other parents claim they’ve seen a steady erosion of those standards in recent years, particularly in training of teachers.

“There is a fair amount of teacher turnover and instead of hiring AMI certified teachers at the public Montessori school, they are hiring those working towards their certificates that takes several years to complete,” parent Julie Denlinger said.

“While hiring ‘working-towards’ AMI-certified teachers fills a teaching spot, the longer term impacts are being felt within the program,” Denlinger said.

The district counters that the lack of Internationale recognition “does not change any of the education practices or philosophy employed over the last three-plus decades.”

Jarrard noted that elementary Montessori teachers still have training, undergo an official consultation every three years, participate in regular Montessori professional development and use a complete set of AMI materials in each classroom.

Judge acknowledged that overall, “the district has been super helpful of the Montessori program.” She also noted that she and other parents were able to meet last winter with Superintendent Adam Swinyard and chief academic officer Heather Bybee.

A former Montessori parent herself, Bybee said Friday that she is “optimistic that we will be able to make some headway this year, and then we’re going to have a work group and talk about some shared values.”

The promise of a work group also is part of the tentative contract, which is expected to be approved next week by the district board of directors.

“We want to talk about how we make this work,” Bybee said.

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