While Whitman County’s first charter school is at least two years from opening its doors, organizers say the school now has a name — “Pullman Community Montessori.”

The movement to establish the school was started by the Palouse Charter School Initiative and spearheaded by local science teacher Laylah Sullivan. Sullivan will spend the next year drafting the school’s charter, leading community discussions about the new school and visiting other successful charter schools throughout the country. If all goes as planned, the new school would open its doors to K-5 students in its first year, adding a grade level each year until it can become a full K-8 program.

Sullivan said she is grateful to be leading these efforts in Washington which took longer to legalize charters than most states. She said this allowed the state to avoid some of the early mistakes made as charter systems were implemented in other parts of the country.

“Some issues have come out of other states where it’s not well regulated — so ours is really highly regulated,” Sullivan said. “That’s one of the reasons they were so late in adopting (charters).”

Sullivan said much of her communication with the public deals with righting misconceptions of charter schools that stem from problems that have arisen in other states. She said common misconceptions include the belief that charter schools must charge a tuition and that they can “cherry pick” which students they include in their school. She said Pullman Community Montessori will be tuition-free and open to all.

“Even though we’ve tried always to use … ‘public school,’ there seems to be a disconnect there, that ‘public’ doesn’t necessarily mean free to everyone,” Sullivan said. “What we found is we need to educate people on (that) ‘public schools’ are free and open to all students; no tuition, no access limits because of race or because of your academic abilities.”

Though the city has been home for 50 years to the private Montessori School of Pullman, for which Sullivan sits as board chair. She said one of her most oft-asked questions is “what is does Montessori mean?”

She said schools that bear the name “Montessori” are rooted in teaching philosophies developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori in 1907. While there are numerous differences between Montessori methodologies and those deployed in the traditional classroom, programs typically emphasize more student-directed, individually focused teaching strategies. Though the philosophies of the method were developed more than a century ago, many public school programs have adopted Montessori strategies like including more hands-on activity in lesson plans. A major hallmark of Montessori programs is the mixed-aged classroom, which advocates say allows children of different age groups to learn directly from one another.

Sullivan said she and the Pullman Charter School Initiative are currently investigating whether Pullman Community Montessori would be housed in the Gladish Community and Cultural Center near downtown Pullman. While the Gladish is already home to the Montessori School of Pullman, she said it is unlikely the two schools would merge.

“We would still be completely separate entities,” Sullivan said.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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