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Solon Springs prepares to launch Montessori charter school

Braedon Wall plays with some Montessori learning tools during a 4K open house at Solon Springs School on Monday, Jan. 7. The district will open a public Montessori charter school for students in preschool through sixth grade in the fall. (Photo by Danny Cason)1 / 4
Students play with some Montessori learning tools during a 4K open house at Solon Springs School on Monday, Jan. 7. (Photo by Danny Cason)2 / 4
Students play with some Montessori learning tools during a 4K open house at Solon Springs School. (Photo by Danny Cason)3 / 4
Anneliese Little smiles during a 4K open house at Solon Springs School Monday, Jan. 7. The district will open a public Montessori charter school for students in preschool through sixth grade in the fall. (Photo by Danny Cason)4 / 4

Solon Springs School District will open a public Montessori charter school for children in preschool through sixth grade in the fall. Parents interested in learning more about the new, free option are encouraged to attend an informational meeting Monday, Jan. 14, at 6:30 p.m. in the school's Sandy Slade Gymnasium.

The district was informed in July that it will receive a five-year, $675,800 start-up grant through the Department of Public Instruction for the Montessori school. It is one of two Eagles' Wings charter schools that will be offered in Solon Springs. The other is a virtual school that opened in the fall.

The Montessori method, developed over 100 years ago in Italy, is a child-centered approach to learning based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. Larger, multi-age classrooms where older students help the younger ones are part of the method, as well.

"There'll be this very natural learning process that happens at home with siblings," said Louise Foss, a member of the Eagles' Wings Charter Schools Governance Board. Students will be able to learn at their own pace.

Solon Springs Superintendent Frank Helquist said the cost to attend a private Montessori school ranges from $8,000-$15,000 a year.

"In America, Montessori is synonymous with expensive preschools," Foss said. The method was initially developed to help poor students catch up with their peers.

There would be no cost to parents for the Solon Springs program, and because it is a public charter school, it is not expected to hurt the district financially. It could even help, Foss said, if there is an increase in enrollment because of the program.

Although it is a separate school, it will be housed in Solon Springs School. Recurring expenses like heat, light and staff costs will be paid with state per-pupil funding, just as they would at any other public school.

"We want to make it really clear that this charter school will not be hurting the public school at all," Foss said. "It will change some of the dynamic."

It adds to the choices available to parents, Helquist said.

"The real purpose of developing this charter school program in Solon Springs is to help support the public school and to bring more students here so there will be more opportunities for everyone," Foss said.

The district must have at least 40 students enrolled in the Montessori charter school to receive the grant. Helquist said 30 applications have already been submitted. According to Foss, the charter school doesn't intend to have an enrollment cap.

"It would be very easy for us to accomodate 60 or even up to 70 or 80 students without adding additional staff," Foss said.

The district currently serves 275 students, Helquist said, with 165 of them in preschool through sixth grade.

The Montessori charter school will operate out of three existing classrooms at Solon Springs School, with one teacher and one aide per classroom. Helquist and Foss said a number of local teachers have expressed an interest in the positions. The grant will allow the district to pay for their training as well as purchase specialized materials.

"It's so much better to grow your own teachers in a rural area," said Foss, a retired professor.

Monday's informational session will include a panel of experts from other Montessori schools as well as a question and answer session. It comes just prior to Wisconsin's open enrollment period, which runs from Feb. 4 to April 30.

"We want to make sure there's information out there about the charter so people can make a choice if they wish," Foss said.

Visit eagleswingscharter.us or the Eagles' Wings Charter Schools Facebook page for more information.

Packer backing

Since June, Helquist said, the Solon Springs School District has secured more than $1.6 million in grant funding. That includes two grants to install a solar array on the school, a Fab Lab grant and a drug-free communities grant that encompasses both Solon Springs and Northwood school districts.

The newest grant announcement doesn't involve big numbers, but it's backed by a big name.

"This is the one I'm most pleased to get," Helquist said.

The district received a $4,000 grant from the Green Bay Packer Foundation for a collaboration between the nonprofit Rural Arts Voice North and the school. It will be matched with district funds.

The grant will be used to involve students with refreshing historical signs in the community and launching a local history exhibit as well as bringing more artists into the school. It will also provide opportunities for more community- and student-generated art to be displayed at the school.