Montessori school authorized for fall opening

Charlotte Perry, 10, uses a trinomial cube during a lesson in the elementary classroom at Isthmus Montessori Academy. State 'charter czar' Gary Bennett announced on Thursday he intends to authorize a public, independent Montessori charter school opening in fall 2018. 

State “charter czar” Gary Bennett on Thursday said he intends to authorize up to two independent charter schools to open this fall in Madison, and both are familiar names in the city’s public education landscape.

The surest bet is Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA), whose bid to join the Madison School District was rejected in August. Also possible for a fall opening is Kaleem Caire’s early childhood offering, a proposed school for 4- and 5-year-olds on the South Side to be known as One City Senior Pre-School.

Caire had previously sought approval for an independent charter school designed to help African-American students bridge the achievement gap. It was rejected by the Madison School Board in 2011.

Bennett said contract negotiations were almost finished for IMA’s proposed 4K-9 school, leaving plenty of time to hit a July 1 deadline for getting paperwork to the state Department of Public Instruction for a fall 2018 opening. Both charters also would need final approval from Bennett’s boss, the UW Board of Regents.

IMA, a private school since 2012 on Madison’s North Side, would take the name Isthmus Montessori Academy Public, or IMAP, as a charter, Bennett said. It would enroll 184 students in its first year, rising to 389 in year five. Current IMA students would have to apply like any other student for a spot in the new charter, with no preference except for children of charter founders and governing board members, up to a total of 10 percent of enrollment, and a lottery to be held if applications exceed available seats.

“So far it doesn’t look like there are any sticking points,” Bennett said of IMA’s bid.

Gary Bennett

Gary Bennett leads the Office of Educational Opportunity, which plans to recommend authorizing up to two independent charter schools in Madison that would open in fall 2018 -- a Montessori charter and possibly an early childhood education school.

IMA leaders also plan to add a high school — grades 10-12 — starting in year four of the standard five-year contract with Bennett’s office. After the contract ends, Bennett said he hopes the school district agrees to absorb the Montessori charter if Bennett can show the concept works.

“Our shared goal is for (IMAP) to be part of the school district in the long run,” Bennett said. “It’s unfortunate (the School Board) couldn’t get there, but that doesn’t mean they can’t in the future. Boards change.”

School districts can be wary of independent charters because they have less authority over them than regular schools and because they lose taxpayer funding to them. But districts don’t have to fund charters out of their existing budget — they simply raise their local tax levy to cover each student enrolled at the charter school at the same rate they spend for any other public school student in the district. If that district per-student amount is more than the charter school budget spends per student, though, the district doesn’t get the extra money back.

District Superintendent Jen Cheatham on Thursday said Bennett’s goals were not necessarily in conflict with hers.

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“(His) office should have a targeted vision – one aimed at incubating ideas that can accelerate progress and close gaps and ultimately, if successful, be folded back into districts to benefit all children,” she said. “Our hope is that it will live up to that targeted vision.”

“While we do not believe an outside authorizer should be making these decisions for our community, neither of these options are in conflict with our district’s goals,” Cheatham added, “and we will learn more and work with the leaders of both schools to serve the students and families of Madison well.”

Caire’s charter would be focused on early childhood education for 82 students in 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten. Bennett said he expected a review committee to make its decision in a week or so, with possible contract negotiations after that.

A former Urban League of Greater Madison president, Caire previously sponsored Madison Preparatory Academy, a charter idea aimed at helping black students in grades 6 through 12 bridge the achievement gap. The plan was rejected by the School Board in 2011.

Independent charter schools are free to attend and open to all students, but Madison has never had any. Bennett’s office, opened in April 2016 within the UW System by state statute, has the ability to bypass local school boards and authorize charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee.

Bennett said he liked the idea of adding a Montessori School, organized around self-driven learning and project work, to Madison’s public education landscape. He also wanted to provide more high-quality early childhood education, he said, with both options more accessible to low-income parents through the charter process.

Bennett said he hoped the IMA charter school could be rolled into the Madison School District eventually if it demonstrates it can be successful and financially sound.

“I don’t think IMA is a silver bullet,” Bennett said. “It’s going to work and be great for some kids, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Bennett said he had received two other proposals for charter schools in Madison but decided both of those schools could not be ready for a fall 2018 opening. He said work continues on them for a possible fall 2019 opening.

After initially saying his office would be completely transparent — publicly posting the names and scores of all applicants in real time on his office website — Bennett now has changed course. UW System lawyers advised he not publicize anything until the contract negotiation phase, or after applicants are rejected.

A fifth proposal also was received, but Bennett said a full application was never completed so it was not released.

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