Montessori school expanding

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A Montessori-educated child tends to be self-directed, organized, cooperative and peaceful. Also, they “significantly” out-perform their peers in math and science, according to staff and administrators at Bright Water Montessori Preschool and Elementary School.

Bright Water has been breaking some new ground in North Minneapolis in the past six years, opening as a preschool in the Camden neighborhood for 16- month old through kindergarten-aged children in 2004, and founding a grade 1 through 3 charter school two years ago. It became the first charter to lease space from Minneapolis Public Schools, and is currently located in the former NorthStar School, an open school building at 2410 Girard Ave. N (where it has been since 2008).

Bright Water has 107 students, 45 in the preschool, 62 in the elementary school. Director Ann Luce said 60 percent of their families live in North Minneapolis. School demographics show that 44 percent of students in both schools are African American, 35 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, 3 percent Native American. Of its 20 staff members, eight are white, eight are African American (including one Somali), and four are Latino. More than half the students’ families, 52 percent, are low income, and eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

“We have a history of working with families who fall through the cracks. Many struggle financially but don’t qualify for child care assistance. We have offered more than $300,000 in [preschool] scholarships over the past six years,” Luce said. “A third of our families receive child care assistance, a third are on scholarships, and a third pay full tuition.”

Bright Water got its start thanks to former state senator Robert Kierlin of Winona, founder of Fastenal, whose daughters attended Montessori schools. “He wanted to extend the outreach of Montessori to low income communities,” said Development Director Elizabeth Badillo Moorman. “We were one of the schools he initially funded [through the Hiawatha Education Foundation] in 2003; we got a $400,000 grant over three years. It is difficult to start a Montessori school; we use specialized materials, games, toys, that are costly, and the number of manufacturers is very limited. Montessori teachers have four-year degrees plus an additional year of Montessori training. They command a higher salary.”

Thanks to a two-year $250,000 grant from The Walton Foundation last year, Bright Water Elementary hired a Spanish teacher and a learning specialist. The Hiawatha Education Foundation recently granted Bright Water $150,000 for a new initiative: community outreach to promote Montessori preschools in North Minneapolis. The school is partnering with the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota to co-develop 10 new schools; in North, the target is three new preschools. (The $150,000 is not intended to fund the actual start up of the program, Badillo Moorman said, only the initial outreach effort.)

“We’ll be organizing an individual community group to start new Montessori schools,” Badillo Moorman said. “We will work to increase the awareness and education of people in the community—parents, community leaders—about what Montessori education is. We will be talking about two areas: the excellent academic focus, and the fact that children receive a lot of life skills, both school skills and executive function skills such as time management.”

Luce said the Montessori method, developed by Maria Montessori (who was the first female physician in Italy), is a revolutionary way for children to learn. “It is very child-development oriented. Children have choices. Our mission and vision is that children have independence, learn creative thinking, learn respect for self and others and the environment, and develop a love of learning.”

The school has a small food shelf and book-share program. “Families send in food, families who need it, take it. If a book disappears, that’s okay. If it comes back, that’s okay too.” Luce said. The charter school has an environmental focus, and each classroom has its own garden of raised beds with organic soil. “We wanted to make sure they ate what would be good for them.”

Badillo Moorman said the kids were delighted to be able to pick snap peas and pull up radishes, adding, “It never occurred to me that they would eat radishes.”

The third graders recently held a fundraiser for Haiti and raised $150. Luce said, “We all went to US Bank and watched the money go through the machine. They got a money order, wrote a letter, and sent the money to the Red Cross. They made a poster for the US Bank branch manager, and he gave them a bank card for $25.”

Luce said they have a family event every month, which might include a pizza party, a gardening day, or an ice cream social.

The North Star school, which doesn’t have walls, is a problematic location, Luce said. “This is a temporary location. It’s a difficult space.”

Badillo Moorman added that the toddlers have to climb two sets of stairs to get outside to the playground.

Although Bright Water has made a commitment to stay on the North Side, and the Montessori vision is to operate a school in an area of a city where many children live in poverty, nonetheless “There has been a fair amount of pressure to take the school out of North Minneapolis,” Badillo Moorman said. They are in a high-crime neighborhood, she added, and recently there was gunfire at 25th avenue, close to the school playground. (No students or staff were injured.) “It was a sober reminder that we are not always safe. We stress the safety of our children.”

Bright Water Montessori has a waiting list, and since Minneapolis Public Schools closed Parkview Montessori (and moved the program to Bryn Mawr School), it is the North Side’s only Montessori preschool. “There is a huge need on the North Side for an accredited pre-school program,” Badillo Moorman said. Bright Water Montessori is accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale and received a four-star rating (the highest) from the new Parent Aware Quality Rating System, issued by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Because Bright Water Elementary is a tuition-free charter school, and-unlike the preschool, a public school-parents must participate in a drawing to get their children into it. Bright Water preschool attendance, in other words, is no guarantee that the children can attend Bright Water Elementary. “We tell parents that, when they enter their children in the preschool,” Badillo Moorman said. “We can’t give preference to our preschool kids.”

In the future, Luce said, Bright Water plans to expand its charter school one grade a year, up to grade six.

For information on Bright Water Montessori or Bright Water Elementary, call 612-302-3410, or check the website, www.brightwatermontessori.org.