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Muskegon's newest charter school combines Montessori methods with environmental research
mLive.com
By: Lynn Moore
October 02, 2013
Kristy Crocker had explored Muskegon County's newest charter school for its potential to challenge her sixth-grade daughter, and when they found out it had an environmental theme, the decision was made.

Lydia Crocker had found a new school.

Kristy Crocker, of Muskegon, said she's been pleased so far with the Muskegon Montessori Academy for Environmental Change. The school opened this fall with about 56 kindergarten through sixth-grade students.

Lydia is an advanced student and likes to be challenged at school, Crocker said.

"With this style of learning, it's perfect for her," Crocker said. "She can take it as far as she can."

Following the Montessori method, teachers provide direction to students and a list of projects for them to complete. It's up to the students to determine which task they work on as long as they finish the list by the end of the day.

Crocker said that format teaches children to enjoy learning, and how to learn.

"I don't want my kids just to learn facts," she said. "I want them to enjoy learning."

The Muskegon Montessori school had a rough start to the year, but students and parents took it in stride, said Sidney L. Faucette, president of MIChoice, which is managing the charter school that is authorized by Ferris State University.

The school building that the charter school purchased – St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church's former Wilma Hall – wasn't ready in time for the start of school on Sept. 3. So the school leased space from Western Michigan Christian High School for several weeks.

"The high school was just a great friend to us," Faucette said. "They could not have been more gracious and open-armed with us."

Most of the new school's students are from the Mona Shores Public Schools district, in which the new school is located, Faucette said. Some also have come from Muskegon Heights and Muskegon.

The four-classroom old school building at 2950 McCracken St. has proven to be the perfect size for the start-up school, officials said. Kindergartners have their own room, while there are two classes of first- through third-graders – one with 10 students and the other with 13 – and a classroom of 23 fourth- through sixth-graders.

There's also an old gymnasium and a large multi-purpose room that school officials plan to divide into more classrooms as the school grows. The plan is to add a seventh grade next year and an eighth grade the year after that. Faucette said the goal is to grow to 100-125 students, though the school could serve as many as 200 students if there's enough demand.

"We know that the Montessori program, once everything is going totally right and stabilized, is something people are going to want," Faucette said.

Students have two blocks of three-hour uninterrupted work time that are separated by lunch and recess. Teachers provide small group or individual instruction and then students can work on their assignments for the day at their own pace.

"This allows students to learn and accelerate at their own pace and in their own direction," said Tracey Jensen, a teacher and director of the Muskegon Montessori. "A small group of any age might want to start math problems while a fifth-grader might want to start his or her research project."

On one recent morning, the fourth- through sixth-graders were quietly working on various assignments, mainly with the use of laptop computers. Some were using computer software to design playgrounds, while others were doing math, reading or working on maps of North America. One boy was writing out a "Peace Pledge" while a part-time special education para-pro worked quietly with another student who needed extra support.

The classroom teacher, Stacey Jandron, moved from student to student, and if one of them wanted her attention they approached and quietly put a hand on her shoulder to know they needed help. The result was a calm classroom that was mostly quiet, especially after Jandron reminded the children to "check yourself" when the noise level got too high.

"It's very self-guided," said Ally Padden, marketing and communications coordinator for MIChoice. "They have to make sure they make the right choices and get their work done."

The multi-age classrooms also give older students a chance to mentor and show leadership, Padden said.

Research projects will be focused on the environment, and issues that affect it, Jensen said. Students will be given an opportunity to investigate and problem-solve through hands-on environmental lessons, she said.

"The vision of MMAEC is to enhance student health and learning while conserving natural resources and empowering students to develop sustainable behaviors, enabling them to become stewards of the future," Jensen said.

Kristy Crocker said it was the school's environmental theme that really attracted her daughter, Lydia, who previously attended the K-5 Three Oaks Public School Academy. Three Oaks is a charter school also operated by MIChoice, and officials there really encouraged "graduating" fifth-graders to try the new Montessori school.

Lydia is the youngest of six children, and was the only one not to receive some home-schooling, Crocker said. Her oldest sibling is in college while the other four attend Muskegon Public Schools, with which Crocker said she also is pleased.

But for now Crocker expects Lydia will continue at the Muskegon Montessori Academy for Environmental Change, provided that it adds grade levels according to plan.

"We're already leaning toward keeping her there," Crocker said. "We'll keep her there as long as we can."

Lynn Moore covers education for MLive/Muskegon Chronicle. Email her at lmoore8@mlive.com and follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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