Desert Sky Montessori:
A Charter Sprouts in the Desert
Desert Sky Montessori is a Montessori charter school in the process of formation in the high desert Deschutes County seat town of Bend, Oregon. Because the charter has been proposed but not yet approved, MontessoriPublic got a unique look into the arduous and often convoluted journey from idea to reality in a conversation with board co-president Shelly Phillips.
The project began like so many “grassroots” Montessori charter schools do: ordinary parents at a local independent Children’s House fell in love with Montessori and wanted more for their children. Philips put the feeling into words:
The experience of seeing the kids and whats they could do is what inspired me … I was just in awe of what students can accomplish when they follow their own interests.
There weren’t any Montessori elementary programs in the Bend area at the time, and rather than working to extend their school’s program or start a new private school, the core group decided to pursue a charter. They weren’t Montessori experts, or school administrators, or well-versed in education policy. But they did share a desire to make Montessori more accessible for all children, in line with Maria Montessori’s pioneering work in San Lorenzo. (To be fair, Phillips wasn’t entirely new to Montessori. After focussing on brain development and infant cognition as an undergrad at the University of Illinois, she experienced first-hand the “peace and concentration” in children at a Montessori school, and took the first of several jobs as a classroom assistant.)
Charter Proposals One and Two
So, let’s have a charter, they said. And quickly discovered that there was a lot they didn’t know. Their first application to the district was quickly rejected, and returned with “pages and pages” of feedback. The district had questions: Do you know all the laws and rules you need to follow? How will you implement special education? Can you really serve children to the district standard? How does Montessori meet those standards? And…let’s talk about this proposed budget.
But at least the district engaged with them, instead of handing back a simple rejection. That’s when the group, now a Board of Directors, got some help and support from leaders at a couple of successful Oregon charter schools (the Multisensory Learning Academy in Gresham, and Lewis and Clark Montessori Charter School in Damascus, profiled here on MontessoriPublic). They drew up a more professional and detailed budget which passed muster with the district’s Chief Financial Officer (“now that’s a budget!”), and wrote a Montessori “scope and sequence”, as well as an alignment document, with Montessori concepts on one side and state standards on the other. At the same time, they created a Montessori advisory committee of trained teachers to give input on things like class sizes and essential materials.
The board also learned that they had to scale back their ambitious plans to open with 300 to 400 children. That size was a response to a typical charter school challenge: facilities, which are not usually supplied by the school district. 300 students was enough to drive an arrangement with a development company to build, finance, and sell back to the school a complete school building. But the district felt the plan was too big to succeed, and had understandable concerns about losing that many students in a single year.
Plans were scaled back to 150 for the first year, serving kindergarten through fifth grade. Interestingly, Desert Sky had planned to start at first grade, to avoid competing with local Children’s House programs — another common theme among Montessori charters. But the district felt that leaving out kindergarten would drive inequality, as lower-income families would start school elsewhere while families with resources would stay in private Montessori schools and then come to the charter. The final proposal anticipates five classrooms of 30 children each — one kindergarten, two lower elementaries, and two upper elementaries of fourth and fifth years only, building to a true nine to twelve in year two. Middle school is in the plans for the fourth year, after one full three year cycle.
Another thing the board discovered is that it takes a lot of money to get something like this going. A first $100,000 planning grant from the Oregon Department of Education didn’t come through on a technicality, but a second is likely to get approved, and an implementation grant for $250,000 to $400,000 would be the next step. Private fundraising brought in $4,000 the first year, $17,000 the second, with a target of $25,000 for this year. A grant writer has been brought in to apply for another $290,000, and a local restaurant will offer a high-end fundraiser dinner when the charter is approved. Philips estimates that a cool million in public and private grants will be needed, not counting fundraising activities, which sounds like a lot, but goes fast: the conditional use permit alone on start-up space in an office building will come to $50,000. Desert Sky’s 80% of state per-pupil funding will come to $5,712, although it seems that it might be possible to negotiate this figure with the district.
Desert Sky has chosen not to affiliate with wither AMI or AMS, and is not opposed to hiring teachers from other trainings, although MACTE accreditation is a preference, and the school plans to join the Oregon Montessori Association and sign teachers up for the North American Montessori Teachers Association. The Montessori advisory committee will continue to give guidance for best practices, and the board plans to higher a trained school director to ensure quality. They plan as well to use the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector’s Essential Elements Evaluation Rubrics, although Phillips told me that they can’t expect to meet the “exemplary” level in the first year, but that they have that as a five year goal.
Approval, lessons learned, and launch
A second charter proposal was submitted and then withdrawn this spring, in anticipation of a second denial, which would have been a setback. A revision haas been re-submitted, and the board is very hopeful for approval this fall. Families can submit an “intent to enroll” form on the website, and lottery applications will be available when the charter is approved. Doors are expected to open in September, 2017.
I asked Phillips what she would want other charter-minded individuals and groups to know about the process. She said that what surprised her the most was how political the process was. You need to make connections and alliances within your district, including school boards and superintendents, she told me — it makes all the difference for your application. You could have the perfect proposal, but without those connections, you won’t have success. “I’m really proud and excited that we persevered,” she added. “We didn’t quit after the first application (or the second!). Keep improving, keep working at it, and you will succeed.”