Montessori Schools Thriving in Bozeman


Bozeman Daily Chronicle
By Gail Schontzler
October 8, 2011 

At Middle Creek Montessori School, 9-year-old Nathan Andrew went outside at recess and held a softly clucking chicken named Tiger in his arms.

“I like it,” Nathan said of the private school. “We can do whichever subject we like, at our own pace.”

Middle Creek has a 100-year-old barn for chickens, rabbits and goats, a creek where children can explore and a large log home that’s the elementary school for 32 kids in first through sixth grades.

The school also has 18 kindergartners, which brings the elementary-age enrollment to 50. When preschool children are counted, the entire school has 130 children, making it the Bozeman area’s largest Montessori school.

Montessori schools are thriving in the Bozeman area. That’s despite the advent four years ago of full-time kindergarten to Montana’s public schools, which hurt private school enrollment, and despite the recession, which made it harder for some parents to afford tuition.

Today there are 13 schools in the Bozeman and Belgrade area that consider themselves Montessori, roughly double from a decade ago. Local Montessori teachers said they’ve heard that Bozeman has more Montessoris per capita than anywhere in the nation, though no one had firm statistics to back that up.

Montessori schools are popular with parents who want a secular education that stresses letting children explore, follow their own interests, make choices and learn at their own pace, and rejects sitting in neat rows with learning dictated by textbooks or teachers. In classrooms that hold up to three grades, elementary students are responsible for learning each subject and go about their work quietly and independently.

Parents “want a safe, nurturing, creative environment that really fosters a love of learning,” said Nancy McNabb, head of the Middle Creek School. “Maria Montessori called it freedom with discipline.”

Parents on her board decided to double the school’s acreage and buy the adjoining property on Cobb Hill Road three years ago, when it went on the market for $1 million. They took the risk because they wanted the large outdoor environment, one of the school’s unique features, McNabb said.

While most Montessoris take children from ages 3 to 6, Middle Creek and Bozeman Summit, formerly part of Learning Circle Montessori, offer elementary education up to grade six.

The economy’s downturn hurt enrollment, said Dani Stern, head of school at Bozeman Summit, located off Michael Grove Avenue in northwest Bozeman.

“I can’t tell you how many parents came to my office, many with tears in their eyes, and said, ‘I can’t afford it this year,’” Stern said.

Bozeman Summit has 42 students in grades one through six this year. Before the recession, enrollment hit 52 and the school built a third classroom to ease crowding and accommodate expected growth. The school has since had to cut back on its teaching staff.

Still, children at Bozeman Summit love it.

“I think this school is great because you’re free and everybody knows each other really well,” said Sage, 10. “I feel I learn a ton … I like being able to walk around and not just sit confined in a chair listening to a teacher all day.”

For Bozeman Summit’s annual Halloween celebration, Aidan, 9, said he chose to portray Plato. “He’s just a really cool dude,” said Aidan, who will get to dress up in ancient Greek garb and give a speech as Plato to the school and parents.

“I like this school a lot – you don’t have to just sit at desks,” said Max, 9. “You can get up and be with your friends. You have a lot more freedom.”

Stern agreed that public schools have adopted ideas pioneered by Montessori, like using hands-on blocks to teach math. Many Bozeman public classrooms also have children work at tables together, instead of sitting in regimented rows, as their grandparents did.

Still, some parents feel so strongly about the advantages of Montessori elementary education that they’re willing to pay tuition. That’s $790 a month at Middle Creek and $801 at Bozeman Summit. Both schools offer scholarships.

The strengths of her school, Stern said, are its low student-teacher ratios (10 or 12 students to each teacher) and lots of individual attention. Students consistently test in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, she said.

“Our kids do really well when they leave – academically, socially, in leadership, resourcefulness, comfort with adults, comfort speaking in front of people,” Stern said.

And the future looks brighter. Montessori preschools are seeing their numbers of kindergartners rebounding again, she said. “That bodes well for us next year.”

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