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Public Montessori school in Colorado Springs adding seventh, eighth graders

January 30, 2014 Updated: January 30, 2014 at 7:41 pm

Recently obtaining approval to expand, officials at the Pikes Peak region's only public Montessori elementary school are working with teachers, parents and west side neighbors to create curriculum for seventh and eighth graders.

"This is a step out to do something different. We'll do everything we can to make it work and be successful," said Buena Vista Elementary School Principal David Brilliant Jr.

Last week, Colorado Springs School District 11's Board of Education backed the school's request to open its doors to middle schoolers. Brilliant said he hopes to have a curriculum in place by fall, which would elevate it to a pre-K through eighth-grade school.

The student-driven education style of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who educated the children of Rome's ghettos in the early 20th century, is best known for its effectiveness with children ages 3-6.

However, Brilliant said, allowing students to self-direct their learning at their own pace while being guided by teachers can work equally as well for older students.

"Within the boundaries set by the teachers, students are offered choices on types of tasks. As the child develops more self-confidence, the range of freedom is expanded," Brilliant said. "It's kind of a reasonable-parent approach."

Given the social nature of middle school, and the students' changing bodies and interests to contend with, Brilliant and his staff realize that older students want to do more adult-type of school work. Montessori's original model called for older students to run farms to learn entrepreneurship and business along with the basics.

To bring the concept into the 21st century, the middle school curriculum at Buena Vista will incorporate science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM - as well as what's known as design thinking, Brilliant said.

"It's how adults learn. You identify a problem, research it, look at why it exists and then try to find solutions," Brilliant said. "We'll work through problems using logical steps and give students the resources."

Much of the older students' education will revolve around projects the students do for the school or the community.

Like the younger students at Buena Vista, older students will work together with different grade levels to develop teamwork and collaboration skills.

To prepare for adding more STEM projects, the school this year launched an after-school robotics program; three years ago, the school paired with the Catamount Institute to provide environmental sciences.

The Montessori approach motivates students to learn, Brilliant said. On state assessments, Buena Vista typically scores among the top 10 elementary schools in D-11, he said.

The school has become popular. To address decreasing enrollment, D-11 switched it from a traditional elementary school to a Montessori model a decade ago.

Buena Vista moved in 2009 from 1620 W. Bijou St. to its current home in the former Washington Elementary School at 924 E. Pikes Peak Ave. Two years go, Buena Vista added sixth grade.

With this year's enrollment of 262 students from districts throughout the region, the school is nearly full, Brilliant said.

"Parents will drive up to an hour each way to have their children attend here," he said. "Some are families who have lived overseas and are familiar with Montessori."

The plan is for seventh and eighth graders to occupy space in a cottage behind the main school building. The cottage also is used for art lessons and gifted and talented classes, Brilliant said.

"Families have told us they want a middle school option; parents start looking ahead around third grade," he said.

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