June 26, 2013

Group aims for Montessori charter school in Windham by Leah Hoenen

Three local parents have teamed up to campaign for a Montessori charter school in Windham. If approved, Many Hands Montessori School could start serving elementary school students as early as 2014, but the plan needs state approval since the local school district has said it cannot authorize the charter.

A charter school must be authorized by a local school district or by the state commission on charter schools. Many Hands Montessori School organizers first asked RSU 14 if it would authorize the proposed school’s charter, which would have the district oversee the charter school’s obligations under state regulations. They held two meetings prior to the Wednesday, June 12 meeting of the RSU 14 Board of Directors, where board members said the district cannot take on the responsibility of a charter school.

Jennifer Benham, who is spearheading the development of Many Hands Montessori School along with Elicia Boatman and Karen Lane, is working on an application for non-profit tax status and another for the state charter school commission.

“Our first choice was to work locally because of the benefits to us and to them,” said Benham. She said the group is moving forward with its plans. “I am a firm believer that if we can come to be, if we can exist, the community will embrace us,” she said.

Based on the philosophy developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, Montessori education uses a specially prepared environment to educate children. Materials specific to the Montessori program emphasize a child's sensorial discovery of the classroom. Teachers encourage students to participate in taking care of the classroom and themselves to foster independence. 

At the RSU 14 board meeting, board Chairman Catriona Sangster said the group had approached district Superintendent Sandy Prince with the concept of a public charter school within the district. “They are very passionate about their experience there and want their kids to go into elementary school in that philosophy,” said Sangster.

Benham said she discovered the Montessori education philosophy when her oldest daughter, now four years old, began attending Little Log Cabin Montessori School at 18 months of age. The group’s Facebook page says it favors choice in public education.

Sangster said a public charter school would be bound by the same obligations RSU 14 is. She said its creation would lead to a reduced per-pupil allocation to the district, but would require additional administrative duties for district staff, who would oversee the paperwork due from the charter school to the state.

Board member Jeri Keane-Dryer said the board needed to have a workshop before deciding whether to act as an authorizer. “My general sense is they have another route to go and it is way too short notice,” she said.
Sangster said, “It’s not that we don’t support this concept or this school, but it is something we can’t take on right now.” Other board members agreed that the district already has many obligations of its own, and can’t take on the authorization of another entity.

Benham said the school would initially serve kindergarten through grade 3, later expanding to grade 8 and eventually grade 12. A location for the school has not been established. The charter school commission may authorize 10 charter schools in 10 years, said Benham, and two are operating already.

Many Hands Montessori School wants to be a public school to make the philosophy accessible, she said. “If it was private, tuition would be $7,000 per student per year to operate. That’s a lot of money, especially if you have more than one kid. We believe Montessori education should be available to everyone regardless of money,” said Benham.

For more information, find Many Hands Montessori School on Facebook, or email manyhandsmontessori@gmail.com

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