Helena Montessori

Smith Elementary School Montessori students play instruments and try on clothing during a African culture presentation by Peggy Hollow-Phelps in November. This year, the school district received a record number of applications for the 36 Montessori seats.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Students who don’t get selected in the lottery to attend Helena’s public Montessori classes will soon have a new option.

Vanessa Nasset, the former principal at Central-Linc elementary, plans to open a Montessori school for students from age 3 to 12 starting this fall. Bloom Montessori School will be the first private alternative of its type in Helena for K-6 students and may come as a welcome substitute for the growing number of families who missed the cut for a finite number of public school Montessori slots.

Helena is one of three school districts in Montana that offers an option for public Montessori -- an educational method designed to let students work independently at their own pace. With 36 spots available, Helena Public Schools holds a lottery each year to determine which interested families make it into the program.

The public system hasn’t added a Montessori class since 2009, but the program’s popularity continues to swell. A record 106 applications came in for fall 2015 openings.

“There's a desire there from families. They’re recognizing that this works,” Nasset said.

“I want to create a system where this opportunity is available to more than those fortunate ones who are drawn,” she added.

As a private school, Bloom will charge a monthly tuition. For families with a student in the primary class for students from 3 to 6, tuition will be $625 a month. For 7 to 12-year-old students in the lower and upper elementary class, tuition will cost $675 a month.

Nasset, who grew up in poverty and is a first-generation college graduate, said it’s important to her to create opportunities for students from families that may not be able to afford tuition.

“I want to create opportunity for all kids,” she said. “An ultimate goal for us will be fundraising and providing scholarships.”

About a dozen families have signed up so far. Some parents have asked Nasset to expand through middle school, high school and even down to provide infant care.

Nasset said she is considering providing Montessori to seventh and eighth grade students as well, but has no plans for high school.

Jennifer Hodgkiss, a parent who has lived in Helena for just over a year, heard about Bloom from fliers at a public event and decided to enroll her 6-year-old son.

Her 8-year-old had attended a Montessori preschool in Texas and learned life skills he still uses today. Hodgkiss looked to enroll her younger son in Helena but couldn’t find any options for students older than preschool age. 

“When I found out (Nasset) was opening elementary, I immediately wanted to put him in,” Hodgkiss said.

After some web searching, Hodgkiss said she found that $675 was more affordable than prices in other states. 

The impetus behind Bloom came from Nasset’s desire to look past standardized tests and the traditional method of moving students to the next grade as long as they meet minimum standards.

“My education philosophy was shaped in Alaska, when I worked for a public school system. There were no grade levels, there were not letter grades, education was fit to the child,” Nasset said.

At the time she didn’t know about Montessori. When she moved back to Montana and began working in Helena Public Schools, she learned about the Montessori method and realized it was almost identical to the style of education she believed in -- where the teacher ensures the needs of each child are met.

“What I love about Montessori is it gives you the tool to do that,” she said.

Bloom will be located in the Medical Arts building on the Last Chance Gulch Walking Mall, and Nasset said she plans to use the downtown environment to enrich the students' learning. The curriculum will incorporate volunteering, culture, a sense of responsibility and stewardship of the natural environment.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Nasset said.

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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