Changes at Bryant Montessori have parents worried about future of the Tacoma school

Kathy Unruh worries for the future of Tacoma’s Bryant Montessori School.

The vice president of the Tacoma Federation of Paraeducators believes a series of changes facing the school for this school year could undermine its dedication to Montessori education.

“Bryant is a Montessori school,” she said. “For it not to be following the Montessori model when it’s advertised as Montessori, that disturbs me.”

Bryant, located on Grant Avenue in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, enrolls nearly 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. According to its website, there are currently 28 teachers employed at the school. There also is a preschool, with tuition of $850 a month.

Bryant moved to its current location in 1962 and started becoming a Montessori school in 1998 when the school received a Federal Magnet grant.

In 2011, Washington State designated Bryant as one of Tacoma’s “Innovative Schools” because of its use of Montessori teaching methods.

Montessori schools emphasize hands-on, project-based learning and small, intimate classroom settings. As part of the Montessori method, children of varying ages are grouped together in the same classroom.

In a Montessori school, three grades of students usually take classes together. First through third graders are generally grouped in the same class, and fourth through sixth graders in another class. Teachers, assisted by paraeducators, teach the same students for three years in a row.

Bryant is a Tacoma public neighborhood school. Children living in the neighborhood the school serves are guaranteed a spot. Parents who live outside the neighborhood can fill out an application if they would like their children to attend the school.

If there are not enough spots available, these children are put on a waiting list. Fifty students are currently on the wait list or this school year, according to Kathryn McCarthy, a spokesperson for the Tacoma Public School District.

Budget cuts this year reduced Tacoma Public School District’s funding by millions of dollars, The News Tribune reported.

At Bryant, five paraeducator positions have been eliminated, McCarthy said. Those five paraeducators now are employed at other Tacoma Public schools.

“In the past Bryant received extra funding from the district on top of the basic education dollars. This funding was used for extra paraeducator positions. With budget reductions that extra funding amount was also reduced,” she said .

As a result, two grades, first and sixth, have been switched from being part of multi-grade classes to single-grade classes. These changes have come under scrutiny.

In late June, nearly 500 people signed a petition, called “Save Tacoma Public Montessori Education,” in protest of the proposed changes. The petition argues that Montessori parents were not been notified far enough in advance about the changes for this school year.

Lilith Piri, a previous hourly employee at Bryant whose three children have all attended the school, spoke of her fears about the changes.

“People are afraid that the Montessori component of this school is being dismantled slowly, bit by bit, without anyone coming out and saying so,” she said.

Bryant parents spoke about their appreciation of the Montessori method and how it helped and supported their children.

Joel Larson, whose two children have both attended Bryant, said he chose the school because he wanted a type of educational program that would encourage his children to explore.

“The Montessori model worked very well for our children,” he said. “I really enjoyed watching the growth of my children in the classroom.”

Piri echoed those sentiments.

“When you are in a Montessori classroom, where all the kids are engaged and doing their own thing, it’s beautiful,” she said.

‘Taking away the spirit’

One of the most contentious changes regards Bryant’s paraeducators. Last year, Bryant employed 13 paraeducators, according to McCarthy. This year, the school has eliminated positions at the school for five of those paraeducators.

Unruh views this as a challenge to the viability of Bryant’s Montessori program because she considers paraeducators an essential aspect of Montessori education.

Paraeducators in Montessori classrooms “assist and support in specialized early childhood learning programs,” according to Tacoma Public Schools.

The North American Montessori Teachers Association says that each public Montessori elementary class generally has a teacher and an assistant.

“Bryant is one of our innovative schools,” Unruh said. “It’s a commitment that the district makes to its taxpayers. There could have been cuts made without taking away the spirit, the gut, of the Montessori model.”

The five paraeducators who lost their jobs at Bryant now have work at other places in the Tacoma School District, McCarthy said.

Eight paraeducators will keep their jobs at Bryant. Seven of them will have full-time jobs. McCarthy said that decision was made because Tacoma’s paraeducators union asked for more full-time hours for paraeducators.

Unruh said the union would not have advocated for a change like this.

“I am totally unaware of that,” she said. “We would not advocate for more full-time positions in one school. We would advocate for as many full-time people as we can get.”

She also questioned why Bryant eliminated more paraeducator positions than Geiger when faced with similar budget cuts.

¨We have two Montessori elementary schools in our district,” Unruh said. “Why Bryant lost positions, in a Montessori school where they are a required part of the program layout, why the budget impacted one and not the other, is a question of ours.”

Under this year’s budget cuts, positions for hourly workers at Bryant also were eliminated, McCarthy said. Bryant paraeducators will take on the duties previously held by hourly workers, including supervisors at lunch and as crossing guards.

A second contentious change involves Montessori classrooms.

In mid-July, Bryant middle school parents received a letter notifying them that sixth grade would switch to being a single-grade class for the coming year. First grade will also become a single-grade class, according to McCarthy.

For some parents, that was a source of concern.

“The changes about sixth grade were not confirmed until after school ended,” Larson said. “People felt the communication was late and it wasn’t handled well.”

Piri echoed similar concerns.

“I don’t know how the district can say we’re a Montessori school when we’re not following Montessori methods,” she said. “Montessori is multi-grade. It’s grades 1, 2, and 3.”

McCarthy says that the Tacoma School District and Bryant’s administration have no intention of changing the school’s dedication to Montessori teaching.

“Bryant is still absolutely committed to the Montessori method,” she said.