Save Our Schools group has ‘big questions’ about district’s proposal to begin phasing in Montessori program at New York Elementary next school year

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

New York Elementary School, 936 New York St., is pictured Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The sign in front says "Est. 1869."

Though the Lawrence school district is preparing to move ahead with plans to phase in a Montessori program at New York Elementary School, the local group Save Our Schools 497 still has some big questions.

The school district announced in a brief news release Friday evening that pending school board approval, the district will begin a phased approach to offering a free, public Montessori program at New York Elementary next school year. The announcement stated that the district would share more information about the new program after spring break, which is this week, and will host family informational meetings about the Montessori program during the first two weeks of April.

With a school board decision apparently approaching and no formal recommendation or proposal yet available, Save Our Schools 497 organizer Alicia Erickson said some are frustrated with the amount of information the district has provided. Though Erickson said a lot of people see the idea as a more positive and creative approach to help address the district’s budget problems, the group has “really big questions” about the plan and concerns about how well it’s been vetted.

“Is there reasoning for why they chose Montessori specifically versus STEAM or dual-language immersion or all these other examples that are out there in the world?” Erickson said. “Have they polled incoming and current families? Have they polled teachers? Is there research out there that shows Montessori in particular, especially in the lower socioeconomic schools, has a benefit?”

The Journal-World first reported in mid-December that the district was considering opening a Montessori school at New York Elementary based on information from outside sources, not the district itself. Superintendent Anthony Lewis subsequently confirmed the reports, saying that the district had begun exploring the possibility of offering a free, public Montessori school at New York Elementary as a way to attract students to the district and help increase enrollment.

Lewis said at that time that the district had shared information about the plan with New York Elementary’s staff and the school’s site council, but that no official decision or recommendation on the proposal had been made. He also said at the time that the district had considered surveying the community about education programs that could attract students to the district, such as schools dedicated to STEM education, fine arts and others.

In the three months since then, there has not been a formal recommendation, proposal or discussion at the school board level. Friday’s announcement stated that as part of the phased approach, the Montessori program would start with kindergarten in the fall of 2022, at which time the program would be open to all kindergartners with priority placement given to families living in the New York boundary area. For New York families that do not want to enroll their child in the Montessori program, a transfer to Cordley Elementary would be available.

Erickson said another question the group has is why the district decided New York students who opt out of the Montessori program would go to Cordley as opposed to Pinckney Elementary School, which is about the same distance away. Other questions include what options teachers at New York will have and whether the district has a recruitment plan to attract new students to the school.

She said the process speaks to overall concerns that Save Our Schools 497 has had as the district has navigated discussions related to its multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. She said changes that are going to significantly impact students and teachers need to be backed by research and community support.

“I think it kind of speaks to what Save Our Schools 497 is hoping to change overall, is the interaction between the community and the district and the board,” Erickson said. “It feels like a lot of decisions are being made without the input from the people they’re affecting the most.”

A date has not yet been announced for when the Lawrence school board will discuss the Montessori proposal, and it is not clear whether the board will be voting on the proposal before or after the informational meetings for families in early April. The Journal-World has submitted questions about the proposal and the process going forward to the school district, but district officials are currently away from their offices due to spring break.