Alternative education 

Missoula’s private schools start their engines

The Missoula County Public School district rattled and bumped over a rocky road this past year. For nine months the public schools faced budget cuts, while the district—and the state—faced lawsuits. And, of course, the district is now closing schools. Friction within the district, along with the state’s questionable commitment to adequately funding education (as evidenced in the school funding suit), may be just enough to steer some parents away from public schools altogether.

Comparative enrollment data from the public and private schools contradict each other at face value, but the private elementary schools in Missoula seem to be growing. They offer a broad selection of focuses: Spanish; the Bible; nature and the great outdoors. Most offer tuition assistance. And they offer teacher-student ratios that are, on average, lower than those at public schools.

While the teaching and curriculum provided by each school varies, Missoula’s private schools share one concern, with each other and their public counterparts.

“A most common challenge is in the area of finance,” says Valley Christian School Superintendent Earle Reimer. “It certainly is for us.”

Tuition, say school administrators, covers only a fraction of most private schools’ operating costs. Donations, grants, fundraisers and endowment earnings help cover the rest of the budget. But private schools’ concerns aren’t limited to tight budgets.

“Montana does not have a culture of private education,” says Thomas Sanders-Garrett, Sussex School director. On the East Coast, he says, parents commonly consider private education. But because Montana has a history of strong public education, Sanders-Garret believes the choice to pay for schooling is still foreign to many parents. “Here, it’s almost going against the grain,” he says.

Despite the challenges, enrollment in private schools appears to be on the rise in Missoula. The Clark Fork School has had more inquiries this past year than ever before, says Board President Jim Francis, despite limited marketing. Additional inquiries have translated into increased enrollment. This year, Missoula International School added grade 5 two years earlier than projected. Sussex School recently raised its enrollment cap from 72 to 83 students.

Missoula Community School Director Grace McNamee believes that the funding climate in the public school system may be driving more parents to investigate private schools.

Parents hear that art, for instance, is “on the chopping block” in the district, says McNamee. Even though art was not cut from the final elementary budget, the threat, she believes, drives parents to seek alternatives.

She, like Reimer, supports the idea of independent, tax-funded charter schools, for which the Montana Legislature currently does not allow.

“I think the public schools have been expected to be all things to all people for too long,” says Reimer.

Here’s a brief look at five private elementary schools gearing up to start late this month or early next. Most have openings in at least some classrooms. In addition to these schools, many churches offer preschool and primary education. (The Independent was unsuccessful in attempts to interview St. Joseph’s Elementary and Kinderhaus Montessori School in time for this story.)

Clark Fork School

Founded: 1982
Grades: preschool through fifth grade
Annual Tuition: $4,011 average, full-time
Phone: 728-3395
Address: 2525 Rattlesnake Dr.

Clark Fork School Board President Jim Francis always figured he would enroll his child in public school. “There is no way I’d ever put my kid in a private school,” he once believed. Then, he says, he enrolled his “bright and precocious” older son in preschool two years ago at the Clark Fork School, a parent cooperative in the Rattlesnake Valley, on Van Buren Street. Like many parents who enroll their children in preschool and subsequently sign them up for kindergarten and primary grades, Francis was hooked. His younger son begins preschool—at Clark Fork School—this year.

Francis describes the education at Clark Fork School as a “highly experiential model” where students “do, touch, feel,” emphasizing connection with the natural world. Students regularly “saunter” up the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. Nature is front and center inside the building, too: On the primary classroom wall, pictures of the bitterroot flower, clematis and arnica are posted.

The experiential education means the kids are active and busy with singing, gardening and sculpting with Playdough. The model may look like chaos to outsiders, but parents who are intimately involved with the school understand that there is a method to the perceived madness, says Francis. A “strong intention and purpose to the process” exists, he says. Because of the 9-to-1 student-teacher ratio, teachers are keenly attuned to students’ individual needs. Francis describes the teachers as “stellar.”

Because the school is a parent cooperative, with an average of five volunteer hours required each month, families play a large role at Clark Fork School.

“We’re trying to create a community with a high level of parent involvement,” says Francis, who himself joined the board last year. The school remodeled last year, and this summer the board hired a director, a milestone Francis believes will free up the board to “look at bigger picture issues,” and create “a vision for the future.”

Missoula Community School

Founded: 2001
Ages: 3–10
Annual Tuition: $4,398, average, full-time
Phone: 542-2833
Address: 201 S. Fifth W. (In the First Presbyterian Church)

The Missoula Community School (MCS) offers “progressive education,” a model emphasizing a strong sense of community, integrated academic subjects and individualized teaching. As its name implies, the school’s focus is on cooperation and community. “What our goal really is, is to, at all ages, be a strong community inside of the classroom, be a strong community in Missoula,” says Director Grace McNamee.

As such, MCS teachers aim to lead children to solve problems and take responsibility for themselves and others. Students play an active role in directing their own education. They democratically select group names. They select projects through which the educators teach subjects.

One concern some parents have about “progressive education,” says McNamee, is that “progressive” translates into “no boundaries.” This isn’t the case, she says. “The teacher’s job is very complicated in a progressive school,” explains McNamee. She must know each child well enough to individualize learning. When appropriate, says McNamee, the curriculum includes traditional direct instruction. McNamee attributes no mystery to progressive education. “Good teaching, a lot of times, looks like progressive teaching,” she says.

Missoula Community School is not a parent co-op. “I believe that parent involvement in school should not be coerced,” says McNamee. Many parents, however, are involved.

MCS is entering its third year, so parents who choose the school are taking a leap of faith, says McNamee. “We’re not able to point to a 30-year track record,” she says. At the same time, she says, people who commit to the school at this early stage “can be part of establishing something really good.”

Missoula International School

Founded: 1995
Grades: preschool through fifth grade
Annual Tuition: $4,275
Phone: 542-9924
Address: 1100 Harrison St.

“How do the kids do with the language?” It’s the number one question parents ask of the Missoula International School, says Board President Maarta Pierpoint. As her daughter chats in Spanish with a teacher about her Yellowstone vacation, it’s obvious that the answer is muy bien. The Missoula International School is a Spanish immersion school. “We teach ‘in’ Spanish,” reads a brochure, “we do not ‘teach’ Spanish.” A quilt of flags from foreign countries hangs in the hallway. Along a classroom wall, colors are named as rojo, amarillo, verde and azul.

“Children really do well in an immersion setting,” says Pierpoint. Teacher Jeff Kessler agrees. And the language is only part of the educational experience, he says. “These kids are leading their families into greater cultural experiences,” says Kessler. One MIS family just returned from Mexico, and it was the student who translated for the family members, says Kessler.

An MIS goal is for its students to “embody being a citizen of the world,” says Kessler. The world starts in the school’s backyard, which will be the Rattlesnake Valley since MIS rented Prescott.

MIS is seeking accreditation from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), an organization that sets internationally recognized educational standards. In Missoula, it happens to be a private school that has adopted the IBO’s curriculum, but the curriculum isn’t limited to private schools. “A lot of public schools have made this switch,” says Kessler.

Sussex School

Founded: 1971
Grades/Years: kindergarten through eighth grade
Annual Tuition: $6,000 average
Phone: 549-8327
Address: 1800 S. Second W.

Sussex School, which sits on a 2 1/2-acre campus tucked away on South Second West Street, is legendary in Missoula for its waiting list.

“That’s a myth about Sussex that we would love to dispel,” says Director Thomas Sanders-Garrett. A “waiting list,” says Assistant Director Robin Etingen-Ayers, implies that acceptance is sequential. Children are not accepted to the experiential school on a first-come, first-served basis. Rather, parents complete an admission form that solicits the family’s educational philosophy and the child’s level of socialization. (“How does your child relate to his/her friends?” is one of the nine questions.)

Sussex, one of the oldest alternative schools in Missoula, is a parent co-op. Parents are required to log 24 hours of volunteer time each quarter.

Sussex follows a highly experiential educational model. “We specifically plan our program to allow for spontaneity and flexibility,” says Sanders-Garrett. Etingen-Ayers adds: “There isn’t a rigid curriculum.” The students set the pace, and they don’t use textbooks. “If you allow kids to learn at the rate that they enjoy learning, they will often learn more and faster than they might in a textbook-based classroom,” says Sanders-Garrett. The school’s adherence to an “organic” learning process sometimes takes parents aback. “Sometimes, families will enroll their kid and be surprised that we really mean it,” says Sanders-Garrett.

Sussex School philosophy values outdoor activities in the form of skiing in the winter and field trips throughout the year. “That’s a big part of who we are,” says Sanders-Garrett, of the school’s commitment to the great outdoors.

While some outsiders criticize Sussex School for being exclusive, administrators say its students’ academic track record at Hellgate High School, where most students eventually enroll, is good.

Valley Christian School

Founded: 1979
Grades/Years: kindergarten through 12th grade
Annual Tuition: $3,600 average
Phone: 549-0482
Address: 2526 Sunset Lane

Valley Christian School (VCS) opened its doors 26 years ago, and Superintendent Earle Reimer has been with the school since before its inception.

“The kids think I’m as old as Noah,” says Reimer, “but it’s not really true.” He’s 56. Reimer says the school offers a “traditional” educational model, and a curriculum with “a lot of Bible instruction.” Every student attends one period of Bible class each day, and religious study permeates the other classes. “We attempt to integrate that into every content area,” says Reimer.

In addition to report cards and parent-teacher conferences, Valley Christian School offers a “parent portal,” by which parents can access online information about their students’ day-to-day performance. Grades and attendance records are also available via the portal.

“It’s a good vehicle for parents who aren’t afraid of the Internet,” he says.

The school’s enrollment has declined slightly the past two years, and Reimer attributes the dip to the economy in general, and young families facing Missoula’s high cost of living relative to income in particular. The school, however, on Sunset Lane just one block west of Reserve Street, is expanding. VCS is constructing a building with a chemistry lab, an art center, a home economics lab and an industrial arts room.

VCS accepts most students. Reimer explains the exceptions: “We won’t admit children who are problems in other schools.” The school encourages but does not require parent participation.

VCS is non-denominational, and at least one parent of an attending child must be a practicing Christian. Total enrollment is currently at 470.

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