Silverton, with a population of about 9,500, is a small town. In fact, the town was the 1st runner-up in the Deluxe corporation sponsored Small Business Revolution campaign this year for a $500,000 “revitalization” project. (The winner, in a close vote, was Wabash, Indiana.) SIlverton sits on the edge of the rural Willamette Valley, 12 miles out of Salem, the state capital, and 17 miles down Silver Creek from the stunning Silver Falls State Park. Major employers include the school district, a hospital, a mobile home builder, and a meat packing plant. It’s a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone and people work together and help one another out, and it does support a couple of small Montessori schools.
So ten years ago, in 2007, when a local private Montessori elementary program closed down, children’s house parents came together. From the Community Roots website:
They wanted their children to participate in a peaceful, child-centered educational system. They embraced the Montessori philosophy, but struggled with the prospect of private school.
The idea for a charter was born. Parents spread the news, gathered people, and marshaled time and energy, bringing in local educators and Montessorians, and getting some help from veteran Montessori coach and consultant Jonathan Wolff from the Montessori Foundation. A Department of Education planning grant for $55,000 was secured, with another $200,000 lined up for implementation. Six months and more than a thousand volunteer hours later, with support from other Oregon Montessori charter schools, the charter was submitted, and the school opened its doors in September 2009 with a lower elementary classroom of 32 first through third years and two teachers.
Co-founder and administrator Miranda Traeger filled me in on the history, challenges, and successes of the project over the last ten years. She made sure to point out the “amazing” relationship with the Silver Falls School District. “The district includes us as ‘one of their schools.’” Still, like most charters, Community Roots faces the challenges of funding, facilities, and maintaining Montessori fidelity.
Elementary school charters in Oregon get 80% of the per-student allotment, which works out to about $5,700 for Community Roots. (When you compare that number to private school tuitions, it always says so much, about public funding, charters, and private programs…) However, Traeger was quick to point out the services she gets from the district for that other 20%: they help with payroll, billing systems, personnel services, IT support, trainings for required services such as IEPs, 504 plans for homeless children, and assessments. Not every charter has such great arrangements with their district, and building strong relationships from the beginning was the key. “It’s a small town, everyone knows each other, and personal relationships make all the difference.”
Like most states, Oregon does not automatically provide facilities for charter schools, so rent or mortgage payments have to come out of that $5700. Community Roots has bounced around several district buildings over the years, sharing space in a low-enrollment K-8 school, enduring closures, and moves, and fielding a parent facilities search committee. The school is currently housed in the occupiable portion of a partially condemned high school building — but before you judge too harshly, bear in mind that this is a start-up school on a shoestring budget in a district that doesn’t have a lot of cash or spare buildings laying around. Recent negotiations will have the school moving into a local church as a more permanent home (there’s that small town connectedness again).
The school was AMS-affiliated at the start, with an eye towards flexibility and a perceived friendliness to public Montessori. But over the years, Community Roots has opted out of both AMS and AMI affiliation. Like many public programs, the expense didn’t necessarily seem to justify the return. Recently, the school has adopted NCMPS’ Essential Elements of Montessori Practice in the Public Sector rubric as a guiding document, as well as relying on the AMI and AMS training of its teachers. (Full disclosure: MontessoriPublic is a publication of NCMPS.)
Among the biggest challenges for public programs is full implementation of the three-to-six age range, since funding is typically available only for five-year-olds and up. The school has been able to maintain 6-9 and 9-12 elementary classes, and added a Kindergarten-only class this year. In consideration of those strong community relationships, the school is mindful of its impact on two local children’s house programs. In a small, non-affluent market, a free children’s house program could have a big impact on local business operating on a narrow margin. In fact, this year’s afternoon kindergarten rents space from a morning-only program operated by one of those small schools. Still, the plan is to move to a full day program next year, and, knowing the importance of the three year cycle, Traeger is exploring the possibility of a blended funding model for three to six at some point down the road.
The next step is a middle school program, to open this year or the year after. Some of the original families have 6th years this year, so if appropriate facilities can be found and funding permits, Community Roots could join Lewis and Clark, the Ivy School, and Ridgeline Montessori as an Oregon public charter Montessori middle school.
I asked Traeger what she would want people to take away from Community Roots’ story. She reflected on the need for a board or an administrator who can “do fiscal responsibility and policies and procedures”. So many start-ups begin long on idealism and passion, but short on those practical skills, and you need both to make it. She also emphasized finding staff with flexibility around different Montessori backgrounds, and willingness to work together and to learn from one another. Oregon, like most schools, requires at least 50% of charter school teachers to be state licensed, and that may constrain who you are able to bring in, so the ability to continue learning and developing is crucial.
Finally, Traeger cited something she’s come, along the way, to regard as essential: time to collaborate among the staff. It’s easy to get bogged down with just keeping things going, and burnout drove a lot of turnover in the early years. “Take care of your people,” she advises. Community Roots has built in staff meeting and development time, working with Montessori readings, and growing towards a reflective practice. They’ve made time for self care, for staff retreats, for celebrations with food. “I want to make the school a place where we can grow as individuals, not just as a business.”