Read Part One
During our two-hour drive to Cortez yesterday, Cynda and I talked quite a bit about education.
Cortez, Colorado is a rural town of 8,600 people located about 100 miles due west of Pagosa Springs, near the base of the internationally popular Mesa Verde National Monument. The town boasts two charter schools: Southwest Open Charter School serving grades 9-12, and Children's Kiva Montessori School, serving grades 1-6. Another charter school, Battle Rock Charter School, is located about 14 miles west of downtown and serves mainly grades K-4.
Our destination on Tuesday was the Children's Kiva Montessori School, housed in a former office building on North Beech Street. The school opened its doors this past August, and operates (as its name implies) using teaching methods developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori at the beginning of the 20th century.
We were met at the front door by the school's executive director Josh Warinner, and by Anna Cole, one of the parents instrumental in writing the 250-page Charter application last year. That application was accepted by the Cortez School District — but not without some intense negotiations, I understand.
Here's a photo of the very amiable Mr. Warinner posing for us in front of the school.
After a few minutes of conversation with Mr. Warinner and Ms. Cole, it became quickly apparent that both of them were enthusiastic about this new adventure — their own charter school, overseen by its own board of directors but working in collaboration with the Cortez School District. The decision to form a charter school is not one to be taken lightly, I understand, but the decision was perhaps somewhat simpler in Cortez, where the school district was planning to shut down a district-run Montessori classroom that had been in operation for about 18 years.
With the help of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, and the Choice and Innovation Unit of the Colorado Department of Education, Ms. Cole and a group of activist parents convinced the school board to support the creation of a K-6 Montessori School. The new school is housed in a 1950s-style brick building that I assume, based on the building layout, was once home to a church of some type at some point in its life. Half the building is used by a school district preschool; the other half had served until recently as offices to the Southwest Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Finding a building is one of the key issues faced by a new charter school — often THE key issue. The rooms in the Children's Kiva are cozy, to put it politely. But the energy of the children and staff (Cynda and I both agreed) was somewhat remarkable compared to other public schools I've visited.
Near the end of our tour, Ms. Cole was talking about the main differences between Montessori education and what we might call "standard American education." She talked about her presentation at a recent meeting of school parents.
"Because Montessori is so different, in the sense of responsibility and the work plans, there's a real difference between kids who've been with Montessori from the beginning [of their school career] from the kids who come from a traditional classroom. We've had some of the kids this year, who came from the traditional environment, who hit the ground running and really blossomed; they really 'got it'; they can work on the work plan, they can stay focused,
"But then there's another whole group of kids who came in as fourth graders, second graders, never having been in Montessori, never having been given the responsibility for their own learning."
Ms. Cole used a term with which I was not familiar: "normalizing." What is a "normalized child"?
As the first female physician licensed in Italy in modern history, Maria Montessori sought to turn traditional education on its head. She used her work with developmentally disabled children to create a 'child centered' educational approach that stresses respect for the child's point of view, and an understanding of how education actually takes place. In Montessori's view, education happens most effectively when child discover the world — not when they are told about the world.
Instead of emphasizing drills and memorization, with students all doing the same thing at the same time in the same way, the Montessori method deploys student-selected work, small-group instruction, and stresses collaboration, often between students of different ages. And Montessori stressed the importance of developing social skills alongside academic ones.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this installment, Cynda and I had talked quite a bit about education during our drive to Cortez. One of our topics was, 'How well does our current American education serve the current American economy?"
When America's education system was developing during the 1800s, another development was taking place at the same time: the industrialization of the American economy. The U.S. was undergoing a huge transition, from a country of independent, self-sufficient farmers to an urban-based industrial society. The educational system imposed upon American society during this period was intentionally designed to create two classes of workers: factory workers on the one hand, and managers and professionals on the other.
The U.S. is now heading into a very different type of economy. But our traditional school system is still operating on the old factory-based model from the 1800s.
Can schools like the Children's Kiva help us transition into the type of education we now need to provide to our children?
Could America as a whole benefit from a Montessori-style education system? Could the children themselves benefit?
Read Part Four, tomorrow...