Dixie Montessori Academy: State-approved charter proceeds despite school district opposition

Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – More than a year away from opening its doors, the Dixie Montessori Academy charter school has already drawn support and opposition from educational peers in its quest to offer Washington County students and parents a new option.

Led by Julie Wand, a professional educator with over 25 years of experience, Dixie Montessori Academy abides by the curriculum and principles of the Montessori educational method, developed nearly a century ago by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. It emphasizes independence, freedom within limits and respect for a child’s natural psychological development, serving students from infancy to early adulthood. The method is currently practiced in nearly 7,000 schools worldwide. However, Dixie Montessori Academy will be the only public Montessori school in Southern Utah upon opening its doors in August 2014.

The unique facets of Dixie Montessori Academy include grades K-7 mixed-age classrooms, where older children serve as role models and mentors for younger children, self-paced, self-directed learning where students can choose their own work from what interests them, uninterrupted blocks of work time and hands-on learning.

“An environment of freedom and discovery in which each child can reach his or her full academic, social and personal potential are among the benefits the school will offer the community,” said Kevin Groke, chairman of the Dixie Montessori Academy founding board of directors. “Graduates will demonstrate creative thinking, self-discipline, respect, cooperation and will build a solid foundation for future success.”

Dixie Montessori Academy is a charter school, funded by the State of Utah and open to all public school students but operated by a privately selected board of directors who believe in the Montessori method.

The need for an alternative curriculum going beyond the standard public school model has been desired by many students and parents in Southern Utah,” Dixie Montessori Academy Marketing Coordinator Mike Currie said. “The board of directors felt the need could be met by offering a Montessori curriculum within the Utah charter system.”

The board of directors began writing the school’s charter application in early 2012 and presented it to the Utah State Office of Education Charter Board in November. In February 2013, the school received approval from the board. On April 5, the Utah State Office of Education approved Dixie Montessori Academy in a unanimous vote, securing its share of the state education budget. With funding in place, the school is moving towards choosing a final site, starting construction of the facility, hiring staff and accepting enrollments.

Online enrollment applications open in June. The school is expected to quickly fill its allotted 410 seats for the 2014-2015 school year and parents or guardians are encouraged to enroll as soon as possible. More details on the process can be found on the Dixie Montessori Academy website.

The exact location upon which the school will be built has not been determined yet. Several sites in St. George are currently being considered; Groke said the board of directors plans to select one in the coming weeks. The school will be a 25,000 to 30,000 square-foot building resting on five to seven acres featuring environmentally conscious design techniques. Ground will be broken no later than January 2014.

Dixie Montessori Academy has faced recent scrutiny from the Washington County School District and Washington County School Board. The district is particularly opposed to the project.

“We believe the school will be located in a poor area and is not a good idea. There is not a lot of growth happening in the proposed locations,” WCSD Business Administrator Brent Bills said. “We believe it will detract from schools that already exist and end up costing taxpayers money. We offer sufficient choices to parents.

“The problem that we face as a board in educating more than 28,000 students is when do we need to build a new school because of the numbers of children needing to be educated?  We designate a large amount of taxpayer money to build a new school and then find out that a charter school is also being built and funded with taxpayer money,” Washington County School Board representative Barbara Beckstrom said. “It is hard to be accountable for the money we spend when we cannot plan on the exact number of children that will be attending a certain school because of the duplication that happens when a charter school is also being built in the same area. As a school board, we feel very accountable to our constituents for the money that we spend and want to be able to make the very best judgment calls possible when building new schools. At this point, the board has not taken a position on this issue.”

It remains to be seen if either the district or the board will take any official action regarding Dixie Montessori Academy. In the meantime, the school will continue operations as planned.

“Charter schools broaden the type of education available to Utah students, breaking away from the standard public school model. Currently, there are about 90 charter schools in Utah serving about 10 percent of the total student population,” Currie said. “We are attempting to correct that imbalance by offering another choice. We want students to be lifelong learners and believe each child has the potential to be an outstanding and successful member of society.”

“Dixie Montessori Academy is still narrowing down the final location for the school, and while doing so will definitely consider the needs of the nearby student population,” Groke said. “There are many wonderful teachers and staff members in the Washington County School District and for many families, the traditional education model works great. We respect and appreciate the wonderful work they are doing for our children. For those families that are searching for something different for their children, a time-tested teaching method that will help them develop a deep love of learning, we invite them to take a look at Dixie Montessori Academy.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News
Image by Brett Barrett, St. George News

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  • JJ Slice May 30, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    The School Board has opposed every charter school in Washington County. From what I can observe, the opposition lies more in self preservation than it does in location or other logistics.

    If locations mattered, why would the school district construct an elementary school within 1/4 mile of George Washington Academy–one of the oldest and most popular charter schools in the county.

  • IDislikeBureaucrats May 30, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Imagine that. The school district is against parents having choices and is hiding its argument in its supposed concern for fiscal responsibility.

    “We believe the school will be located in a poor area and is not a good idea.”

    Groke said the site hasn’t been chosen yet. This is a straw-man argument by the school district.

    The school is going to be built. The district knows this will hurt them, not the taxpayers. They want your dollars. This is typical government fighting against progress and the will of the people.

    A Charter board is non profit. Follow the money.

  • Roy J May 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    think this is a great chance to make a Montessori education available to the public in Saint George. If you read the charter, it says that Dayspring Montessori will be offering only Pre-K services from 2014 school year forward. Parent’s primary reason for withdrawing or forgoing that school was due to the expensive, monthly tuition. Brent Bills’ difficulties with the charter school possibly being situated in a poor area or in a slow growth area are not really difficulties at all. I believe it is the case that any child in Utah is eligible to apply to any charter school in Utah. Therefore the concern does not seem particularly relevant. Parents here already drive their children to schools like Tuacahn for the sake of the education. There are about 30 elementary and intermediate schools in Washington County, I think. Taking aproximately 2 classrooms of students for each grade level out of the entire Southern Utah area is hardly going to detract from their functionality in any meaningful, realistic sense. Just the opposite, I would think. Also, the student to teacher ratio in Southern Utah is around 22-25 to 1. If there are fewer students in the classroom, we should be able to reasonably expect more of the teacher’s time to be devoted to them. Win all around!

  • spectator in the cheap seats June 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Our school district here in Washington County , needs a real BIG shake up …. The waste with our school district is overwhelming. From the school buses that transport students from Leeds to St George for school is a big waste., to the school buses that drive around in a holding pattern , REAL NICE , on to women that drive Suburbans around town transporting students where ?? , then there is the District vehicles without any markings outside of the state EX plate & small letters on them , just driving around burning fuel….All of this nonsense in the name of EDUCATION. Maybe it is time to stop the bleeding , and kill the sacred cow …. The District administation. I am quite tired of hearing year after year how education needs funding… Year after year the school districts get funding, but where does the funding go to ? It is a no -brainer , that our teachers are under paid , Charter schools are a good thing for parents and the community, as another choice. State Government ( I.E. school districts…do NOT have the Market on education ) and this county’s school district thinks that they do. When you have a K-6 school 4-5 blocks away , but yet the district forces students to ride a bus out to the fields …This is RED flag , showing the district is wasting funds … The district should have more transparency .as to where our tax- payer funds are really going…Maybe an audit of the School District is needed too . Oh yeah , if a school outside of S.G needs new equipment , lets say new football shoulder pads etc. forget it , those schools get the hand me down equipment from the S.G. schools….It would be real nice to see a school like the Private Catholic H.S ‘s up north start up down here .

  • Claire April 20, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I’m very excited to finally see these type of schools in southern Utah! Having experienced the torture of attending Washington county public schools for twelve years, where the desire to learn was completely crushed out of me along with my self-esteem, I’m determined to find a better place for my daughter to get a real education and joy for learning.

    It’s not at all surprising that the school district is against this, on the risk of sounding bitter I’ve never known them to have an interest in what’s best for children. I’m tired of big business trying to make the world a better place for their wallets.

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