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Isthmus Montessori Academy, 1402 Pankratz St., is near the intersection of Aberg and Packers avenues on Madison's North Side.

The Madison School Board voted Monday to establish a public Montessori charter school — the first of its kind in the district.

However, the board delayed the school’s opening until the 2018-19 school year, and the school’s creation remains contingent on the school’s founders supplementing their proposal during contract negotiations to address key areas that still concern district administrators and some board members.

The vote to establish the public charter school was 6-1, with TJ Mertz the sole opponent.

If all goes as planned, the vote means Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA), 1402 Pankratz St., would change from a private, tuition-based school to a public, tuition-free one in the fall of 2018. That’s a year later than founders Melissa Droessler and Carrie Marlette and many of the school’s large group of passionate supporters had desired.

Consequently, some supporters left Monday’s meeting grumbling and even angry over the delay. Droessler stayed optimistic in her comments.

“We are thrilled at the board’s support and truly hope to operate in good faith with the district for a successful partnership,” she said.

The North Side school was founded in 2012, and Droessler and Marlette have been working with the district ever since to turn it into a public option. They have said they want to make the Montessori method available to as many families as possible, not just to those with financial means.

They believe the Montessori method, which includes multi-age classroom groupings, customized learning plans and self-directed learning, will help the district close achievement gaps while expanding options for students, especially those with special needs.


Maggie Colopy-Sereno, 6, right, shares a story she's writing with classmates Adrian Purnae, 7, center, and Kate Russell, 7, last week in the elementary classroom at Isthmus Montessori Academy.

IMA currently operates both as a private school for grades 3K through nine and as a licensed child care facility that offers full-time, year-round schooling for children ages 2 months through 5 years. It enrolls about 80 children ages 2 months to 15 years old.

The school’s founders have proposed a first-year enrollment as a public charter school of 223 students in grades 3K through 9, although that could change during contract negotiations.

The district’s charter review committee said it could not recommend the proposal because it did not meet expectations in four of 15 areas, including budgeting, staffing and school data. However, some people, including some board members, questioned whether the rubric the district uses to evaluate charter applications is too subjective or sets unrealistic expectations.

Due to the review committee’s conclusions, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said her administrative team could not recommend that the board approve the school for opening this fall. If the board wanted to move forward, she recommended the one-year delay and the contingencies to address the remaining concerns.

The charter school will become what’s called an “instrumentality” of the district. It will retain considerable autonomy, but the School Board will have ultimate responsibility for it and employ the school staff.

Board member Michael Flores spoke strongly in favor of the proposal, saying he loves the Montessori teaching style and the way it addresses the individual needs of students.

“The sooner the better,” he said of opening the school.

Board member Mary Burke said it was critically important to her that the student body of the new charter school reflect the demographics of the overall district in terms of racial diversity and the percentages of students with special needs. The school’s founders and its supporters convinced her through their testimonials and their diligent work that this will be the case, she said.

“I think there’s a true commitment,” Burke said. She noted that the parents who came to the board asking for the public Montessori option reflected that diversity.

More than 20 supporters spoke Monday, one telling the board the IMA proposal is “a gift you don’t want to turn down.”

Prior to voting against the proposal, Mertz said he was concerned that too many unresolved issues were being left to the administration to negotiate when they should be dealt with by the board. After the meeting, he added that he thought the overall proposal has too many weaknesses.

The school is proposing to enroll students from the neighborhoods surrounding it. Its attendance area would align with those of Lakeview, Gompers, Emerson, Mendota, Hawthorne, and Sandburg elementary schools.

Students will need to apply to attend the new Montessori school. A lottery and a wait list will be used if applications outnumber seats.

The district has three other charter schools: Badger Rock Middle School, Nuestro Mundo Community School and Wright Middle School. Wright is opting to give up its charter after this school year, though it will remain part of the district.