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.
“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.”
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