A record number of families applied this year for a limited number of spots in Montessori classes offered through Helena Public Schools.
Broadwater Elementary Principal Sue Sweeney said 106 applications came in for 36 available spots, up from 97 applications last year.
“I think it’s a good thing that there’s so much interest,” she said.
She touted Helena’s public model as a unique option. Typically offered by private institutions, a group of parents in Helena collaborated to get the program first offered in Helena public schools 25 years ago. Along with schools in Kalispell and Bozeman, the Helena program is now one of three public Montessori programs in the state.
Montessori is a method of teaching designed to let students work independently. Students in a Montessori class don’t always have assignments given to the whole class, but instead learn at their own pace, often with hands-on techniques.
Broadwater, Central-Linc and Smith each have a Montessori “pod.” Each pod consists of two lower Montessori teachers who lead a combined class of first through third grades and one teacher who leads the fourth and fifth grade students in a combined class.
Every year the incoming applications are compiled, and 36 students drawn in a lottery are allowed to enter the six lower Montessori classes. Students not selected are placed on a waiting list in the order they are drawn so that if Montessori students drop out the next person on the list can enter.
Sweeney said three families drawn from the first 36 backed out, so the three next names drawn were offered spots.
Parents can also prioritize on the application which school they want their student to attend. Sweeney said requests were fairly even among the three schools, but 14 of the names drawn requested Central-Linc as their first priority. Only 12 spots are open at each school, so two students received a subsequent choice.
“I think it’s both encouraging and frustrating because demand for public Montessori in Helena is outpacing supply,” said Tiffany Lyden, co-president of an advocacy board made up of local Montessori parents known as Helena Public Montessori Parents.
Lyden attributed part of the increase to the letters the school district now sends to families of all kindergarten students in the district. She said the letters, which explain the option of public Montessori, were first sent out two years ago at the behest of HPMP.
The newest Montessori class was first offered at Broadwater during the 2009-2010 school year, according to Diana Hammer, who serves in the Future of Montessori position for HPMP.
After the final class was added in 2009, Hammer said a group of parents from HPMP approached the school district about expanding the program in Helena.
“We started thinking about how we could give even more children in the Helena school district access to Montessori,” Hammer said.
The school district's superintendent at the time soon retired. HPMP continued to implore interim superintendent and then Superintendent Kent Kultgen when he was hired in 2012.
The hurdle for Montessori parents is they aren’t the only people in Helena who have been petitioning district leaders. On top of daily operations and academic planning, the school board and district have been working to develop a facility plan for years. The district also faces annual school board trustee elections and has requested operational levies for the past several years.
“All these things are on the minds of many people in Helena,” Hammer said. “We haven't gotten very far with the district in terms of identifying a place where we could expand the Montessori program.”
Instead of adding new classrooms, Hammer said, HPMP is looking to convert existing classes into Montessori classes.
HPMP surveyed parents in Helena several years ago about a desire for Montessori, and Hammer said the response was “overwhelmingly” a call for more availability.
She added that she thinks there’s more demand out there than shown by the record 106 applications, because parents on the edges of Helena or in the valley have to decide between sending their students to a nearby school or a Montessori classroom in one of the city schools.
Eventually, Hammer said, HPMP wants Montessori options for those families.
“We’d like to meet the demand,” she said.