Rebekah Mingus estimates her financial investment to become part of the Geiger Montessori School community is about $200,000. The emotional investment is even greater.
The dollar costs include buying a house and moving into the Tacoma School District from elsewhere in Pierce County so her kids could attend the West End school.
Mingus and her children love Geiger, and she remains committed to the Montessori philosophy of independence, natural child development and hands-on learning.
But she feels betrayed by the school district, and she’s not alone.
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Geiger parents testified at a Tacoma School Board meeting last week that they enrolled their children at Geiger with the belief that it would grow beyond fifth grade, to include grades six through eight. That’s the model in place at Bryant, Tacoma’s other public Montessori school, located on the Hilltop.
But now, with many of their children aging out of Geiger, they’ve been told that if they want a middle-school education of this type from the Tacoma School District, they will have to transfer to Bryant.
School district officials say that while a middle-school expansion for Geiger has been discussed over the years, it was never officially approved.
In a letter to City Councilman Anders Ibsen, who has interceded on behalf of Geiger parents, Superintendent Carla Santorno said several scenarios were discussed during tight budget years from 2010-13. In 2011, the school board even considered relocating sixth through eighth grade students from Bryant to Geiger.
In March 2014, at a daylong retreat, the board looked at four proposals to deal with middle-school growth on the district’s west side, Santorno’s letter said. One option included Montessori expansion at Geiger.
“We did discuss it as a possibility. But it was never put into the strategic plan,” said board member Debbie Winskill, who added that no formal vote was taken on the issue.
The board instead chose to rebuild the closed Wainwright Elementary in Fircrest as an intermediate school to serve fourth- through eighth-graders. It is scheduled to open in 2016.
During a 2013 bond campaign, the board also committed to rebuild the closed Hunt Middle School to serve the West End. Hunt is scheduled to open in 2021.
“Enrollment growth on the West Side will not justify adding any other middle school options,” Santorno’s letter said. “The administration and School Board have no plans to add middle-school grade levels at Geiger Montessori.”
Board members say they don’t want to create an oversupply of middle-school seats in one section of the city. They also cite the expense of Montessori programs, which require teachers with special training.
But parents point to multiple items from the district website that mention Geiger as a kindergarten- or prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. They say they were not informed of the board’s 2014 retreat decision, and never given a chance to provide feedback. And they question the board’s right to make such a decision at a retreat, which was advertised to the public as a discussion where no action would be taken.
“My family chose this school three years ago with the knowledge that the middle-school extension would be realized shortly after the first year in the new structure,” parent Lisa Olsen said.
The new Geiger opened in the fall of 2012. Before that, Geiger was housed in a dilapidated building and suffered from falling enrollment.
School Board Vice President Karen Vialle and district administrators say there is room at Bryant for Geiger fifth-graders who want to continue in Montessori. But parents question that. They also say Geiger was constructed with science labs, a running track and other features with an eye toward middle-school enrollment.
Geiger parents say they want the district to live up to what they view as unfulfilled promises, and they’re hopeful they can persuade the board to change its position.
“What we are asking for should not come as a shock to the district,” parent Breeayn Douthit said. “It was a plan the district led us to believe would happen.”