Lawrence school district confirms exploration of closing New York Elementary to become Montessori school

photo by: Kim Callahan/Lawrence Journal-World

New York Elementary School, 936 New York St., is pictured Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021

Updated at 6:52 p.m. Wednesday

The Lawrence school district on Wednesday confirmed that it is exploring the possibility of closing New York Elementary to turn it into a Montessori school through a multiyear phasing plan.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in an email to the Journal-World that the district began exploring the possibility of offering a free, public Montessori school at what is currently New York Elementary as a way to attract students to the district and help increase enrollment.

He also confirmed the district shared information about the plan with New York Elementary’s staff and the school’s site council. But Lewis noted that no official decision or recommendation on the proposal has been made.

The proposal comes from the district’s work — through its budget and program evaluation committee — to address a multimillion dollar shortfall in its budget. The Lawrence school board will hold a special meeting next week to share information about the budgeting proposals the committee has worked on so far. Board President Erica Hill on Wednesday said she has called for a special meeting for 6 p.m. Monday. She said no formal action was planned to take place during the meeting.

The committee met Wednesday afternoon to discuss its many broad proposals for cost savings, including “closing an elementary school.” The proposals also included reducing staff positions at several different levels, such as eliminating middle school assistant principals, executive director positions in the district administration and some coaching and fine arts leadership positions, among several other options.

Kathy Johnson, the district’s finance director who led the discussion, said the proposals were far from being approved. She said the school board would still need to vet them and then ultimately approve them.

However, Lewis on Wednesday acknowledged the Montessori proposal would not save the district any money, because the Montessori teachers would be filling the positions of standard elementary teacher positions at the school building now.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

The Lawrence school district’s budget and program evaluation committee meets on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

Instead, he said the plan would help grow the student population, thus increasing the amount of funding the district would receive from the state in future years.

“A long-term solution for the district would be to grow enrollment by attracting new families,” Lewis said via email.

In Kansas, public education funding from the state is generally determined by student enrollment. Schools first receive a base amount of funding determined by full-time equivalent enrollment, known as “base state aid per pupil.” Then additional funding for specific reasons, such as special education and at-risk students, which are known as “weightings.” Both are guided by student headcount in a district each year.

The school district has seen a decline in enrollment in recent years, including a massive drop during the 2020-21 school year, seemingly because of the coronavirus pandemic. District officials recently said those drops were expected to cause a $3.3 million shortfall in funding next school year.

But increasing enrollment by attracting students from outside the district — whether that be from other school district areas or by attracting students who currently attend private schools, such as the Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence — could help counteract funding shortfalls in future years.

A district Montessori School would aim to provide an individualized approach to education, as opposed to the standard K-12 education model, Lewis said. Students in Montessori programs remain with the same teacher in multi-age classrooms for three years, which aims to provide more continuity in their education. Lewis also said the program allows students to learn at their own pace, while participating in mixed-age learning groups based on their ability and interests.

“Freedom comes from the children’s ability to choose their own tasks and move ahead as the desire to know something more or something different becomes important,” Lewis said.

Additionally, if Lawrence were to take that approach, it would use a phasing plan to begin enrolling young students in the Montessori school at New York Elementary, he said. First, the district would start with the kindergarten level, which he said would be known as the “Children’s House.” The program would then expand from there to include a “Lower and Upper Elementary.”

The phasing plan would also allow the school’s current elementary students to finish their education there, rather than moving them to different elementary schools in the district immediately. But future students in the neighborhood would need to attend a different elementary school, if they chose not to attend the Montessori school. Which elementary school neighborhood children attend would be decided by the district’s boundary committee at a future date, he said.

Lewis also said to further explore the possibility of a Montessori school, the district would need to educate families unfamiliar with Montessori education on how it would work. He also said the district has 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.

The exploration of the Montessori school, and possible closure of New York as an elementary school, comes just months after the district closed another eastern Lawrence elementary school for the purposes of saving money in the district’s budget.

In April, the Lawrence school board approved a plan to close Kennedy Elementary for the purposes of changing it into an early childhood education community center. The students who were learning at the school were placed at three area elementary schools, including New York.

New York Elementary currently has the lowest enrollment among elementary schools in Lawrence, with about 188 students, according to the district’s recent enrollment reports.

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