COLUMBIA — Only the faintest strains of classical music can be heard from outside the door of the new Montessori preschool classroom at Grant Elementary School.
Open the door, and not much changes. Children work quietly at stations around the large room; two girls sit in a small semicircle while their teacher, Myke Gemkow, explains the difference between odd and even numbers. One boy carefully examines turtle shells with a magnifying glass, and another enthusiastically flattens play-dough pancakes.
"Does anyone want a pancake?" the boy asks, barely looking up from his tray. When his question goes unanswered, he keeps at his task, passing the floppy orange disc from one hand to the other.
The "workshop hum" that settles over the classroom is just one aspect of Montessori methodology, Gemkow said. The method is based on the child-centered, self-directed teaching philosophies of Italian educator Maria Montessori, who lived from 1870 to 1952.
The Montessori preschool at Grant, developed through a partnership with private organization Rollins Reading and the Columbia Public School District, started in August. The class is the first of its kind in the district and was spearheaded by former Grant Principal Beverly Borduin, who retired in July 2011. She and a team of educators and private partners hope to give students in the Grant attendance area better access to high-quality early childhood education.
According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, children who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, earn above-average test scores and have a better attitude toward school in general.
A public-private partnership
While she was principal, Borduin said, she saw children enter school who were prepared and ready to learn but she also saw others who were already behind. The frustration she saw in those students inspired her to envision a preschool for Grant students, but limited space wouldn’t allow it.
Then John Wright entered the picture. Wright is the founder of Rollins Reading, an organization that has worked with Grant since 2009 helping kindergarteners through third graders get their reading levels up to grade level. Wright, who is a Democratic candidate for 47th District state representative, said he grew up with a family passionate about reading and education. He said he knew early childhood education would be the first step toward closing the academic achievement gap at Grant.
In May 2011 he asked Borduin what else could be done to help children who came to kindergarten without basic skills and solid support systems at home.
"It’s not often that someone says to you, 'What else can we do?'" Borduin said. "Within a year this has come to pass, which is a pretty amazing journey right there."
The model for the funding of the public-private partnership is broken down into private donations, tuition and state subsidies. The district contributes custodial services and the classroom. Families of a certain income level can apply for a state subsidy, the amount of which might vary from year to year. For the purposes of their budget, Wright said they are estimating the subsidy at $200 per month per student.
The class has 20 students, 10 paying $700 in tuition per month and the other 10 contributing $50 per month. The latter half receive scholarships from Rollins Reading to supplement their tuition contribution.
Grant also received a $25,000 grant from the city of Columbia to remodel an existing playground, and Grant principal Kristin Matthews said some of the grant money went toward building a new playground for younger students, which would be used at times for the preschoolers. The new playground replaced a trailer that had been sitting on Grant’s property.
Rollins Reading has committed to raising at least $10,000 per year for the first two years of the school’s operations to help pay for materials, food, teacher salaries and student scholarships.
Borduin said she doesn’t think there is a conflict having the district partner with Wright's company. Rollins Reading is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, so any surpluses from the budget will be reinvested back into the preschool.
Spots in the preschool class are available to students in the Grant attendance area. The students are selected by lottery, and there is a waiting list in place if spots open up.
Empowering students to succeed
Wright can remember exactly when he knew he wanted to work with Borduin.
After trying for some time to schedule a meeting with her, Wright finally asked why she could never meet at a certain time during the day.
He found out she was unavailable because every day when school let out, Borduin rode the bus into a neighborhood where students were repeatedly bullied, from when they got off the bus to when they got home. Borduin rode along to make sure the children made it home safely.
"I heard that, and I said, 'This is my partner, this is my partner,'" Wright said. "And that was the start of everything."
Part of Borduin’s vision was to find a way to help children develop fundamental skills from the start rather than rely on remediation later on.
"Remediation starts so early for kids, and it’s like, what can we do instead of remediate? Can we do something on the front end?" Borduin said. "This is what the preschool is all about."
Borduin, Wright, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Peter Stiepleman and Matthews — the key players in planning the preschool — explored a Montessori program because of what they'd heard of Gemkow's reputation at other Montessori schools across the city. Wright admitted he didn’t know much about Montessori education before meeting with Gemkow.
"The (classroom) environment is very peaceful and calm, and there is a great deal of mutual respect that’s taught," Wright said.
Gemkow taught Stiepleman’s older sons while working at Children’s House, a Montessori school on Tiger Avenue for children ages 2 to 6. Stiepleman said he was encouraged by the way he saw his sons interacting with children from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the city.
Stiepleman said Gemkow is a teacher who can work with people from different backgrounds and help bring them together. From his work at other schools, Stiepleman said, Gemkow had a vision to make Montessori education accessible to all children, even when he had few resources.
"He’s one of those heroes in the community," Stiepleman said.
Gemkow began his career in education teaching adults in the Boonville prison, and he's worked down through the age groups to preschool, where he discovered he was best suited.
"When you watch the children, they take a particular ownership of the educational environment in a Montessori classroom that is very empowering for children," Gemkow said. "The Montessori methodology, when executed reasonably well, tends to nurture kids' natural love of learning in a way that I just find inspiring and makes me want to come to work every day."
Montessori curriculum is heavily focused on the skills and development of each child, Gemkow said. The goal is to let children develop at their own pace and encourage them to explore what kinds of educational activities interest them.
"What I have discovered in years of teaching everyone from adults down to young children is that everyone loves to learn," Gemkow said. "Every single human being both loves to learn and has an incredible capacity to do so."
Limited funds, limited space
The Grant attendance area was the perfect place for the Montessori program, Borduin said, because of a confluence of events and circumstances: Borduin had her vision, a classroom opened up, the school has projections for lower enrollment through 2016-17 and population in the area is predicted to be stable as well.
Until this year, the only preschools sponsored by the district were ones supported by federal Title I funds. There are 26 Title I preschool classrooms in the district, and each classroom has 15 spots available. When factoring in half-day programs, there are about 600 spots total, Stiepleman said.
To qualify, children are screened based on developmental factors, including speech, vision, hearing, health and motor skills, according to the program’s website. Priority is given to 4-year-olds, and transportation is not provided.
The district does not have any more room or funding for students who want to attend Title I preschools, Stiepleman said.
"We want to give kids quality preschool, but we don't have any money," Stiepleman said. "How can we pay for it?"
The Grant preschool wouldn't have been possible without Rollins Reading, Stiepleman said. Along with donations, the organization has helped with mentorship and consulting. The district can't charge families for tuition, so they needed a private partner to make the model work.
For Borduin, the partnership helps her develop the kind of aid she always wanted to give her incoming students.
"I think as a community we have to be looking at our own solutions," Borduin said. "If we say, well, preschool is going to have to wait until we have Title I funding, well, we’re going to have to wait a very long time.”
Partnering and taking risks
The preschool is held to the same standards as any other class in the district, Wright said. Matthews has authority over the whole Grant campus, preschool included. The program was structured to align with policies and assessments the district already has in place so the two entities can fit "seamlessly" together, Wright said.
Stiepleman said the district is not planning to expand this Montessori program; it was intended for Grant and not as a model for the whole district. With some of the money from the bond issue passed in April 2012, Stiepleman said the district plans to open an early childhood center on Lange Middle School's campus in 2017.
The site has plenty of land available and is shovel-ready. Building projects typically take 18 months from start to finish, so construction could begin as early as the end of 2015, he said.
Building the early childhood center also aligns with one of the district's goals to get rid of trailers. Moving preschool education to another building frees up classroom space in elementary schools that rely on trailers, allowing them to bring more students into their buildings.
So far, Borduin said the school has received a lot of support from the community, and she thinks the model will be sustainable in the future. She said the only way to solve the problem of limited access to preschool is to partner in creative ways and find partners who are willing to take risks to make things work for the student.
"It’s Rollins Reading, it’s people in the community donating money to scholarships, it’s Columbia Public Schools donating space, it’s families who want to be at Grant paying tuition — those are really strong partners coming together," Borduin said. "We’re trying to reach out to other partners as well, and what better model is that than to say, 'OK, let’s wait for Title I funding.' It’s not going to happen in my lifetime."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.