Parents hope for alternative charter school

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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An elementary-aged child hunched over an enormous sheet of white poster paper, delicately recreating a map of the world using art pencils and a protractor. His efforts combined math, drawing, and social-studies skills, echoing the Montessori method of integrating several areas of learning into one activity.

The primary-school students in Kirsten O’Sullivan’s class participated in a slew of these projects at the Montessori School of Iowa City in Coralville on Monday.

A group of local parents are working to create a charter school in the Iowa City School District that would be based on the alternative-education model.

Karen Woltman and other Iowa City School District parents founded the Montessori Elementary Steering Committee last September in hopes their children could continue to learn on the Montessori instruction they received in preschool.

The method focuses on creating a self-directed learning environment, eschewing strict teacher guidance and a rigidly defined schedule in favor of large blocks of time spent focusing on projects.

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“One of the things I like about the [Montessori] environment is the ability for children to choose among the works offered in a prepared environment and take their time and do the works as many times as they want,” said Woltman, who sent two of her children to the Montessori preschool in North Liberty. “I think it fosters a positive attitude toward schoolwork.”

North Liberty has a Montessori preschool and Coralville has a Montessori elementary school, but it is private and costly to attend — it charges $6,490 per year for elementary-age students.

The group of local parents is seeking a school that is public and more afforable.

Members of the steering committee are supporting a bill making its way through the Iowa Legislature, House File 585, which would expand the number of institutions able to accredit charter schools such as Montessori. Now, only the Iowa Board of Education can offer accreditation, but the bill would extend that privilege to community colleges, universities, nonprofit private organizations, and the state Board of Regents.

The bill passed the House on March 16 and is awaiting action in the Senate. Whitehead said she and group members hope the bill’s passing would allow public institutions such as the Iowa City School District to accredit Montessori schools.

Tom Yates, the president of the local teachers’ union — the Iowa City Education Association — said the union has yet to see statistics supporting an alternative-education curriculum being beneficial. He added that he is distrustful of charter schools being accredited and run by organizations beyond the Board of Education.

“I think a lot of places and people who might want to sponsor charter schools already have some kind of an agenda in mind,” he said. “Or there are people who want to get around all of the checks and balances that go into running a public school. A lot of charter schools are going through management companies these days, and I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea, because these are for-profit companies, for the most part.”

Debate on the bill is further compounded by a provision that would allow charter-school sponsors to not offer unionized teachers collective-bargaining benefits. Yates said he and the teachers’ union also oppose the bill for those reasons.

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, who supports the bill, said the potential loss of union policies could make education more efficient statewide.

“We need to think a little bit differently about how teachers teach. Right now, they’re an assembly process,” he said. “Superb teachers get paid the same as teachers who don’t care very much. We need a system where teachers can be awarded for efforts and quality. We need to make them into heroes, not union members.”

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