Next year, the Montessori program in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District will celebrate its 40th anniversary. It was the very first public school Montessori program in the country when it opened in 1975.
In 1973, my daughter attended a Montessori nursery school in San Mateo where Bonnie Mathison was a teacher. We became friends. She later taught in the district while I was elected to the school board. We had a novel idea — to start a Montessori program in a public school. The superintendent was supportive but it barely passed the board on a 3-2 vote. Parents were eager, but financial times were tough. It was post Proposition 13. We required that teachers be trained in the Montessori method, which none of the existing staff, other than Mathison, were. Somehow, we hired Judy Bauerlein and she started the program — one class — at Meadow Heights.
Because of popular demand, the program expanded to two classes. Meanwhile, Mathison and Daisy Monte took over as administrators of Lawrence Elementary which served North Central San Mateo children. It became a Montessori showcase. Then, in 1977, a program was started at Parkside which attracted children from both Foster City and the neighborhood. Phyllis Harrison, who had Montessori training, was hired for the Parkside position. Harrison, now the principal at Montessori North Shoreview, said she was attracted to the job because it was a way to “ bring the Montessori program to students who would never have the opportunity to have it.”
Today, the future of the Parkside Montessori program is in doubt. A meeting of parents from both the Parkside and North Shoreview Montessori programs and their staff is scheduled for tonight to discuss future options. The district has decided to turn Parkside into a single STEAM magnet (science, technology, engineering, art and math) according to last week’s Daily Journal. Parkside is not at full capacity but the district hopes the new STEAM program will attract students from overcrowded Foster City schools (My guess — it won’t. Foster City parents want their own school in Foster City). Also the administration and perhaps the board feel two programs should not exist in the same school. So what will happen to the Montessori program?
One option is to transfer students to North Shoreview. But that school is full and has its own long wait list The other is to create a second site. But where? With the district’s increased enrollment, there is no existing site unless Montessori is combined with a traditional program. But that goes against the single program mantra. Another is to move both programs to a larger school site? Where?
As the program developed, parents waited in line for their children to attend and there were waiting lists from the get-go. The Parkside program grew from one K-1 class to include all grades. The Meadow Heights program, also K-5, became so popular it was moved to Horrall and then to its current location at North Shoreview where it became an all Montessori school in 1994. In 2008, it went K-8 . North Shoreview has 393 students and 24 at its fee-based preschool. Most of the students come from the neighborhood. There is not enough room to absorb the Montessori students from Parkside and/or to accommodate the students on the waiting list.
It’s disappointing that the district is tinkering with a successful program. Test scores have gone up in Montessori schools. There is a good mix of neighborhood and children from other areas of the city. Montessori methods are a good fit with the new Common Core standards. Will Parkside be a better school without its Montessori contingent? I doubt it. There are, however, a group of parents who don’t want the Montessori program to remain, even though a majority do. Montessori programs at Meadow Heights and North Shoreview had to face similar concerns when they opened. Somehow, even though the Parkside program has existed for 37 years, some parents want it out.
Since Parkside is not full, why move the Montessori program in the near future? If the district is serious about finding a new site, the best solution is to move the Mandarin immersion program from College Park in North Central to the Knolls site in the Hillsdale neighborhood, once it is retrofitted, and make College Park a Montessori school. That would be fitting. Too few North Central children benefit from Mandarin immersion. So many could benefit from Montessori as they did in the past.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.