A different kind of learning - Making Montessori mainstream

Enter Room 120 at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Madison Valley and you'll find lots of activity - but not everyone is doing the same thing.

At one table, a boy is learning to write the alphabet, while another is counting beads on a string and separating them into groups of 10s.

One girl is gluing macaroni onto black paper to form a frame, while another girl sitting nearby is concentrating on math equations. Yet another girl is stapling blank sheets of paper together to make a book.

A group of students lie sprawled on a large rug with their teacher, Ms. Anastasia, as they use wood blocks to learn about units of 10s, 100s and 1,000s.

Then, suddenly, as if a silent bell has rung, some of the students switch tables and activities.

Not just 'play'

Despite what may appear as simply "play," students in M.L. King's Montessori program are learning the fundamentals and then some.

Similar to independent study, students in Montessori programs work at their own pace vs. meeting the expectations of being at a certain grade level, principal Barry Dorsey explained.

Montessori students choose which activities they want to work on at different work stations labeled art, science, math, Practical Living and the like, and they're not graded on the material.

The students may not learn at the same level as other students their age, but Montessori students will work on a particular subject until they've mastered it, program supporters say.

"Students' minds are sponges; they absorb," Dorsey explained. The students "construct their own understanding of skills and systems" to help them learn their subjects.

"Montessori...respects a child's natural curiosity, balanced with learning," said Linda Bartolucci, a classroom volunteer and parent of Montessori kindergartner Ashwini. "It's amazing to watch their progression. Every week, the kids are into it more."

Dorsey maintains that with this type of learning, students may initially lag behind academically, but as these students become third- and fourth-graders, they will "accelerate," he said, and be at the same learning level as their peers. They also will be able to think more abstractly, he said.

Indeed, after the M.L. King program's first four months, teacher Anastasia Samuelsen said, "The children have responded beyond my expectations.... The students are taking to working until the last bell."

Initial skepticism

Students in the M.L. King Montessori program aren't separated from the other students at recess or at lunch. They also have gym and Arts Corps activities together.

In fact, "as far as the academic model," Dorsey said, '[the students] don't realize they're doing anything differently in the classroom.... It's just another class to the students."

Some parents were initially skeptical of enrolling their children in the new Montessori program because they didn't understand the Montessori teaching philosophy.

Renée Pierce wanted to take her kindergartner Ny'Leaha Gratton out of the program when she first started class, but now the two take a bus from their Rainier Beach home to school, and Pierce volunteers in the classroom.

The students "choose to learn vs. being forced to learn," Pierce said. "It's a different kind of learning, but it's still learning."

What the future holds

This smallest school in the district - with only about 120 students in kindergarten through fifth grade - is once again facing the threat of closure as the school district considers how to cut its deficit.

But Dorsey isn't concerned about that possibility. Instead, he's looking for ways to better educate the students who are walking through the school's doors now.

"We put that behind us," Dorsey said. "We had lots of success last year. Our scores and grades went up. Good things are happening."

"Our passion and dedication is for every child who walks through the door," he added. "We realize we have a population that needs all of our attention, and we need to focus on that.

"When you think about who we serve, we're having as much success as other schools" [with higher test scores]," Dorsey said. "If you go purely by the numbers, you can't dismiss [us]."

Indeed, according to last year's WASL standardized-test scores, Dorsey's students placed in the middle of a group of area schools that include McGilvra, T.T. Minor, Leschi, Montlake and Stevens elementary schools, with M.L. King students earning 53 percent in math and 60 percent in reading.

"We're not at the bottom," Dorsey said, proudly. He anticipates this year's WASL scores to exceed last year's.

But "if it happens, it happens," he said of a possible school closure. "This Montessori program we have now will go somewhere else and continue as is, even if M.L. King is consolidated (closed)."

Bagley Elementary School, north of Green Lake, and Graham Hill Elementary School, in Southeast Seattle, also have Montessori programs.

However, Dorsey is so confident with M.L. King's Montessori program and his school's overall success, he has secured district funding to add a grade 1-2 Montessori class next fall. He anticipates "lots of kindergarten-age students coming in" for the K-1 Montessori class while the current students transition to the new class.

"I'm excited that the [school] district is making a commitment early on," Samuelsen said.

Parents can request to transfer their children from the traditional "inquiry" program to the Montessori program; this year's K-1 class has 11 kindergartners and six first-graders. To enroll, call the Enrollment Center at 252-4765 or 252-6800.

Editor Vera M. Chan-Pool can be reached at 461-1346 or mptimes@ nwlink.com.

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