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State panel authorizes Montessori school in Springdale

by Cynthia Howell | October 17, 2014 at 3:20 a.m.

The state's Charter Authorizing Panel on Thursday approved the application for the proposed Ozark Montessori Academy, a charter school for 280 children in kindergarten through eighth grade in Springdale.

The state panel, made up of top-level staff at the Arkansas Department of Education, tabled hearings on two applications for other proposed open-enrollment charter schools -- one in Little Rock and the other in Redfield -- to give planners for those schools time to correct public notice issues required in their applications.

The panel's decisions on the Ozark Montessori Academy and on three charter schools approved by the panel Wednesday for Forrest City, North Little Rock and Bentonville are now subject to review by the state Board of Education later this year.

The Education Board has the authority to accept a Charter Authorizing Panel decision or hold its own hearing on an application. That hearing could come at the request of the charter school planner or a local school district that is in opposition to the charter, or on the state board's own initiative.

An open-enrollment charter school is taxpayer-supported and operated by a nonprofit organization other than a traditional school district. There are currently 18 charter schools or charter school systems in Arkansas.

Ozark Montessori, planned for the Jones Center for Families at 922 E. Emma Ave., generated no opposition from local school districts at Thursday's hearing.

The school would be the first, or one of the first, public school Montessori programs in Arkansas, although there are about 500 public schools nationally that feature the Montessori method of instruction.

That method is based on the work of the late Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and features three-hour student work cycles, multiage classrooms, small-group presentations, carefully selected learning materials, foreign-language instruction and student choice.

"Because this method of instruction promotes independent, creative and critical thinkers with a greater capacity to focus on a task and work through frustrations, it is internationally recognized and treasured," said Christine Silano, executive director of Ozark Education Inc., the school's sponsoring organization.

Silano told the panel that a private Montessori education has been typically reserved for the privileged in this country. She said her organization would "be proud to offer the high-quality education option to students" in Northwest Arkansas at no cost to their families.

Keith Whitescarver, director of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, told the panel that the Montessori method is growing in popularity among public schools that want to increase diversity among students.

It's appealing to both middle-class and high-need families, he said, adding that the teaching methods "work exceedingly well with low-income families." He cited data from other states showing higher test scores for public-school students in Montessori programs compared to students in other schools in the same districts.

In response to questions from the state panel, Jacqueline Cossentino, senior associate for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, offered assurances that the instructional program will be based on the common set of math and literacy standards that has been adopted by Arkansas and the majority of other states.

"The Montessori curriculum is designed for what the Common Core is after," Cossentino said. "It's after critical thinking. It's after the ability to deal with primary source materials. It's about logical thinking. The Montessori curriculum, when it's handled with fidelity, actually prepares children very well for the Common Core."

The school's first-year budget includes funding for eight teachers, including a special education teacher and a teacher for students who are learning English as a second language. Four classroom aides and two bus drivers round out the staff.

Ozark Montessori is one of two public charter schools under consideration by state officials this year. The Rockbridge Montessori School is being proposed by an entity of the same name for 325 students in Little Rock.

The state panel voted to table hearings on that school and on the proposed Redfield Tri-County Charter School, which would serve up to 375 students in grades five through 12, until the panel's meeting in November. That would give both organizations the opportunity to correct earlier missteps regarding the mandatory newspaper notices for a public hearing that are required of each proposed school.

State law and Education Board rules on charter schools call for strict adherence to public notices and timeline provisions for charter applications.

The Redfield School planners had contracted with a local newspaper to publish notice of their public forum, but the paper failed to publish the third and final notice on the day it was contracted to do so.

In the Rockbridge case, the school planners did not allow sufficient time to pass between the third newspaper-published notice and the actual date of the public hearing. The public hearing can be no sooner than seven days after the final published notice.

Metro on 10/17/2014

Print Headline: State panel authorizes Montessori school in Springdale

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