Courtesy of the Montessori school's Facebook page

Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Ithaca Week, a weekly magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Enrollment at three Ithaca-area Montessori schools has reached record levels in the 2014-2015 academic year, a fact educators are attributing to changes in the public school system, most notably the introduction of the Common Core.

Enrollment at Namaste Montessori School, founded in 2004, on Trumansburg Road has doubled every three years, and there are now 75 students between the two buildings. Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca has more than three times as many students: 230. Principal Laura Gottfried said it is the largest enrollment to date, since the school opened in 1980.

“It is definitely a given that we have had a lot of interest, many visitors, many people who have actually enrolled their children over the last three years because of Common Core,” Gottfried said. “People are not happy about Common Core.”

The standards outlined in the Common Core curriculum are meant to universalize expectations for students at each grade level, according to the initiative’s website. But, Bridgid Beames, head of Namaste Montessori School, said public school teachers are not being allowed to teach. Emphasis in public schools, she said, is being placed on numbers and test scores rather than mastery of a given subject.

Courtesy of the Montessori school’s Facebook page

“In Montessori, our goal is to work towards mastery. So, children progress at their own pace,” Beames said. “When they master something, they move on to the next lesson.”

Montessori education traces its roots to Italy in the early 20th century. The focus is hands-on learning, Beames said, and a view of students as seeds to be nurtured rather than empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Most modern Montessori schools in the United States are elementary-age programs.

The Montessori approach is taking root nationwide. Timothy Seldin, president of The Montessori Foundation, said there is no doubt enrollment continues to grow in the U.S.

“Our best estimate is that there are approximately a million students in some 5,000 Montessori schools,” Seldin said.

Seventeen of those students attend Trumansburg Montessori, a one-room schoolhouse owned by Laura Reid. She intended her small structure to accommodate only 16 students but decided to exceed capacity so two siblings could attend together.

“I’ve really grown enrollment a lot over the past few years and particularly over the past two years,” Reid said. “I have a waitlist now, at least a couple years long.”

Elizabeth Ann Clune, too, maintains a long waitlist. Montessori students, Gottfried said, are undoubtedly better off than their peers in the public school system, from where many of her applicants come.

“Something about that experience has affected their development in a way that is less than optimal,” Gottfried said. “They could come in anxious, they could come in shut down, they could come in afraid to risk academically.”

A spokeswoman from the New York State Education Department said she would not comment on local matters.

“As far as I’ve seen, the Common Core Standards themselves aren’t problematic,” Gordon Bonnet, a science teacher at Trumansburg High School, said in a statement. “But in practice, the implementation of these standards has been haphazard.”

While Montessori schools focus on the child, Beames said, public schools focus instead on performance, a trend that may be influenced by money.

“In our public schools, it’s all about the money. You can follow the paper trail. Why Montessori hasn’t caught on in public schools? I personally think it’s about politics and money,” Beames said.

Textbook companies fund political campaigns, Beames said. Namaste does not use textbooks, and instead the school relies heavily on primary sources, which is a selling point for some parents. Beames said the average parents in Ithaca are highly educated and read and research the best school options.

Even Bonnet, who has been a public school teacher himself for 28 years, said if his two sons were in elementary school today, he would seriously look at alternative options.

“The system as it stands takes little interest in kids’ creativity, engagement, and different learning styles and rates.”

Under the Montessori style, Gottfried said, students are typically more grounded than children at their age.

“They have a sense of what they want, how to get what they want,” Gottfried said.

“Montessori education engages intellectual curiosity,” Maria Morog, the mother of a sixth grade son who attends Namaste Montessori School, said. “There is an energy and an excitement about learning in the Montessori classroom,” Morog said. “Teachers seem to work with the kids in a way that engages their natural curiosity about the world and teaches them the tools to grow academically.”

Montessori teachers said the enrollment increase is due to trust in the Montessori system.

“I think that it’s a philosophy that has been in place for a very long time,” Liz Allen, a teacher at Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca, said. “It’s a proven philosophy. That’s not to say that we don’t tweak it with current research, because we do.”

While Montessori schools strive to better their teaching of each subject, public schools are in a constant state of experimentation, Allen said. These changes, she said, are driving families away from the public school system and into alternative education.

As local Montessori education continues to grow, some educators said they hoped the philosophy would extend to older students. Though the endeavor would be costly and no plans have been made, Beames said Ithaca is due for a Montessori high school.

Emma Rizzo

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.