Local children will have access to a method of teaching often used by expensive private schools, but never by a New York City public school when a new charter school opens in Mott Haven this fall.
Called the New York City Montessori School, its educational philosophy calls for small class sizes, student-led learning and individualized work plans for each student.
Learning in Montessori schools emphasizes the five senses. For example, students who are learning to read are given sandpaper letters as learning aids. They are encouraged not only to see letters, but also to touch and hear them.
A specific site has not yet been chosen, but the school will be in Bronx Community School District 7, which spans Mott Haven and Melrose, said Principal and Co-Founder Gina Sardi.
There are two dozen Montessori-affiliated schools in New York, but this would be the first free one. At the nearby Morningside Montessori School in Harlem, a private school, tuition for a five-day pre-kindergarten program begins at more than $11,000 per year. Tuition at some of New York City’s top elementary schools can climb to more than $30,000 per year.
The idea of a public school offering teaching methods that are usually only available at private schools excited parents who learned about the school at a recent gathering. But some advocates worry that charter schools like the New York City Montessori steal resources from regular public schools.
On a recent Friday morning, Sardi and Director of Instruction Robin Urquart greeted prospective parents at the Brightside Academy on East 150th Street.
Natasha Rozon said she wanted to find a school that was clean, non-violent and had good teachers.
“I really want a good education for my daughter,” she said.
Also there was Chevell Anderson who said she wants her 5-year-old daughter to find a school that will push her, without lingering on material she’s already learned.
“She already knows what’s in kindergarten,” she said.
Since Maria Montessori created the method over 100 years ago, Montessori schools have sprouted up across the world. The American Montessori Society lists over 1,200 affiliated schools in the United States.
The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, SoBRO, is the new Montessori school’s community partner. Sardi is working with SoBRO to raise funds, plan after-school activities and parenting workshops, reach out to the community and hire staff.
They agree that finding a location is a top priority.
The choice of a location for new charter schools is a sore point for critics of the new schools. Many of the existing charter schools in Community School District 7 share buildings with traditional schools, and parents and teachers often complain that they rob the traditional schools of space and resources.
Charter schools are publicly funded but are exempt from many of the city Department of Education’s regulations and some provisions of the union contracts that govern traditional public schools.
The Montessori school is one of a growing number of charter schools proposed in New York City since the cap on the number of charters was raised from 200 to 460 last year. The application for another charter in School District 7, Accomplish Charter School, targeted to open in September 2012, is pending.
Some critics worry about the growing number, saying charter schools drain funding from traditional public schools.
“You are seeing programs being limited, or completely undermined, such as dance programs, science labs, other things the D.O.E. considers ‘extras’,” said Julie Cavanaugh, a member of the Grassroots Education Movement, a citywide coalition that lobbies to limit the number of traditional schools the city closes and replaces with charter schools.
Neighborhood activists like Gloria Cruz welcome new charter schools as long as they act as good neighbors to existing schools. Still, she wondered about the children who don’t make it into charters, which “have a higher standard.”
“And a lot of these kids are not equipped with this higher standard,” said Cruz.
Sardi points out that parents have long complained that schools in the South Bronx are plagued with problems. Schools like hers, she says, can improve education for local children.
Initially, the new school will enroll 100 students and have 12 teachers. It will expand to 300 students in the next five years, Sardi said.
Sardi said she received almost 240 applications, in an admissions lottery that was held in mid-April.
There aren’t any other Montessori schools in the area for students after fifth-grade, so graduates of the New York City Montessori School may have to change learning styles, but Sardi said by the time her students graduate, she hopes to see other Montessori-modeled schools in the area to accommodate higher grades.
Before starting the Montessori school in the Bronx, Sardi spent nearly 20 years as educational director of the Caedmon School, a private Montessori elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Planning for the new Montessori school began in the summer of 2009.
Although most Montessori schools in the U.S. are private, public Montessori schools are becoming more common.
Their future in New York could ride on the track record the New York Montessori School compiles. The stakes are high, Sardi says. The director of the American Montessori Society told her: “You have to succeed.”