Ending neighborhood-school tradition
But many benefits seen in planned BV move to full Montessori magnet

       Buena Vista Elementary, a neighborhood school throughout its 97-year history, is looking at a change in direction.

Lower Elementary Montessori students Mallory Mayne (left) and Paige Stanley use the carpet as a workspace as they pool their resources on a project at Buena Vista Elementary School this week. Some of the class' school supplies can be seen on the shelves behind them.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The idea, according to Principal Dr. Jade Amick, is to become a full “magnet” school, requiring permits for all students wishing to take advantage of the one free Montessori elementary school in the region. The result would be a stronger program by ensuring experienced Montessori students and controlled class sizes, Amick explained. To do otherwise would put “at risk” the four-year effort at Buena Vista, 1620 W. Bijou St., she writes in a 23-page proposal to School District 11.
       As for nearby residents losing their neighborhood school in the change, Amick prefers they look at the positive aspects:
  • Neighborhood students would get first priority at permits, “depending on their age and Montessori experience.” Sliding-scale tuition rates are available for preschool ages.
  • Buena Vista stands to be more academically successful as a full magnet school, which will raise neighborhood property values
  • Families choosing not to put their children into Montessori can pick among three other small District 11 elementaries (Washington, Bristol and Whittier), each within a mile of Buena Vista.
           As it is now, only about half the school's current 220 students live within its attendance area. The remainder have permitted from elsewhere in D-11 or even outside the district, Amick said.
           Bolstered by parent surveys showing almost 100 percent support, the principal was set to give her proposal to the D-11 Board of Education April 23, but the issue has been postponed for now. According to Amick, district staff felt they needed to come up with a “definitive definition of what a magnet school is vs. a magnet program.”
           In her own mind, the distinction is clear. Buena Vista, where she became principal this year, has been transitioning into Montessori since the 2004-2005 school year. But because BV has remained a neighborhood school, the program has not been as effective as hoped.
           “The constant influx of students who have no Montessori background and/or do not remain at the school for three years (referred to as the 'revolving door') has had a negative impact on the school's implementation of the program, the rise in student discipline issues, and diminishing test scores,” she explains in her proposal. “The impetus for a magnet status is to stem this tide, establish a well-run, authentic Montessori program, and begin a tradition of excellent academic success with its concomitant positive test scores and public image for academic excellence.”
           She believes the change is needed as soon as possible: “Another year of negative scores and discipline problems, which the mix of unprepared students results when they enter a Montessori classroom without any previous understanding or experience of the method, will undermine the present enrollment of students who have been in the Montessori program from the beginning. Some students who have had three years of Montessori and create the true Montessori environment, have left the school because of the above issues, and are taking those highly developed skills with them. If the trend continues for another year, the program will be at risk.”
           Amick's own educational career has been almost entirely in Montessori, going back to the early '70s. She is the first Montessori-trained principal since Buena Vista started the program. Its formation grew out of parent advocacy, buoyed by the 2003 Westside Task Force's recommendations that the Westside's small schools should look into magnets to increase their enrollments and thus avoid being closed by the district.
           The teaching methodology is named for early 1900s Italian educator Maria Montessori, who believed that children learn better in a non-traditional setting, using hands-on methods and being self-directed as much as possible.
           Buena Vista students still take CSAP tests, just like other students.
           Looking ahead to the 2008-09 school year, Amick said she is working on the assumption that the district will accept her proposal. She hopes to know for sure by June, she added.
           One big allure for parental “school shoppers” is having Montessori at no charge (except at the preschool level). “Montessori is normally an extremely expensive education,” Amick pointed out. “It can cost $10,000 to $15,000 a year in a private school.”
           Buena Vista has taken steps to make its program even more appealing by offering extended child care next year for preschoolers before and after school.
           The preschool element relates to the age 3-5 primary classes, for which she has announced she is offering 45 permits in '08-09.
           The emphasis on youth is based on the reality that it's harder for older students to change over to that way of teaching and learning.
           Obtaining a permit would not require an “IQ test,” Amick said. But applicants would be expected to visit the school, see the classroms and let their child spend a day in a class. “We need to be assured that parents feel this is a good idea for their children,” she said. In enrolling, parents would agree to leave their children in at least three years and to perform 30 hours of volunteer work either in the school or the community.
           Permitting will keep individual classrooms from being over-full, as can happen in a neighborhood-school situation where all students must be accommodated, and also will allow the school to grow to an enrollment of about 250, according to Amick. Prior to Montessori, the school's enrollment had been steadily dropping, reaching a low of about 175 in 2003.
           For the 2008-09 school year, Amick said she would like to have three primary classes, one K-1 transition class (for slighly older students who have not done Montessori before), three lower elementary classes (ages 6-9), and one upper elementary (age 9-12).
           A part of the school plan from 2004, which Amick's plan would not change, is to continue the gradual Montessori transition, letting students who had started at Buena Vista when it was traditional finish out in that manner. Next year only grades four and five will be traditional.

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