On Friday, November 18, Key West Montessori Charter School gathered for a name dedication ceremony, with Superintendent of Schools Mr. Mark Porter and School Board Member, District 1 Mr. Bobby Highsmith in attendance. The public school has legally changed their name to May Sands Montessori, a measure made to honor the Key West educator and Maria Montessori while anticipating their new lease renewal agreement at the old May Sands school location and to distinguish themselves from the small, private Montessori school only two blocks down the very same street.
“The Board sought to better identify our school within the community as a public school of choice,” says Principal Lynn Barras. “By changing our name to May Sands Montessori, we also honor two female educators: May Sands, a local lifelong educator, and Maria Montessori, a pioneer in education.”
May Sands began teaching in 1908 at Harris Elementary School on Southard Street, spent 3 years teaching at Russell Hall from 1911-1914, and was transferred to the Division Street School (now known as the old Truman School on the corner of White and Truman), where she taught steadily and also served as librarian after nearly 45 years of service in the Key West public school system. She held a number of certifications and college degrees during a time when few teachers actually had formal training, and was rated one of the best teachers in the school system.
“Everything about this woman connects in my mind to a Montessori school, from her forward thinking, which aligns with Maria Montessori’s visionary efforts in developing a child-centered educational model, to her personal investment in her own education, unique to women at that time,” says the school’s Board President Briana Castillo. “I feel very strongly that it is appropriate to honor Miss Sands and her many years of service by continuing her name with our school.”
Monroe County is one of the few communities in the country to provide a free-of-charge, Montessori-based option to traditional education— an option that currently serves 141 children and their families selected from the county supervised lottery system. In addition to successfully meeting state-mandated educational requirements, the school’s Montessori method guides students in the development of self-discipline, self-confidence, cooperation and responsibility; and instills in them solid foundations in intellectual growth, humanitarianism and peace.
“As a parent, I prefer the more intimate quality of a smaller school,” says Seana Cameron, a lifelong traditional public school educator. “I also feel that children learn in different ways. Charter schools have a little more flexibility towards creativity & alternate philosophies of education and are free from some of the government restrictions that are placed on non charter public schools.”
The school choice movement, however, is not without its critics. To some, it signals a lack of faith in the public school system instead of an alternative education for children with particular learning styles, interests, or special needs. When the Key West Montessori charter school moved to the May Sands building complex in July 2010, the school’s reputation was tainted by politics, community misperceptions, and media misinformation— challenges that continue today. Their new name comes after two years of the school’s lease renewal negotiations with the Monroe County School Board— negotiations that are still unresolved.
“They are trying to use the lease to impose restrictions on the school that they cannot impose on the charter,” say Castillo. “They want to limit our growth.”
The County’s new proposed lease imposes an unnecessary enrollment cap on the school. While the county is entitled to determine that limit as landlords, charter school statues prevent capping enrollment on a high-performing charter school.
“They do not need to specify a cap on enrollment to protect their property because the same statue that prevents enrollment cap on a high performance charter school also limits that school from overgrowth, since enrollment increase is limited to available space in the existing facility,” says Castillo. “This is determined by state-requirements for educational facilities that limit overcrowding on any public school.”
Also in dispute is the removal of one of the spaces from the school’s previously leased agreement, the site of condemned building #400. Montessori formerly used this space prior to it being condemned and now seeks it in order to provide basic educational amenities like indoor lunch space, whole school meeting space, and the ability to expand to offer a complete and free Montessori primary program for children ages 3-6.
The latest lease proposes language that has been altered from their most recent executed lease, which enabled the school to seek capital outlay dollars for rent and facility maintenance— funds allocated by the state to charter schools that would not otherwise be available to the school district. Through the creative efforts of its fundraising committee and with the support of community businesses and generous local donors, the school has raised over $500,000 since 2012 to help fund the costs of classroom assistants, enrichment staff, art supplies, physical education equipment and campus improvements, such as playground equipment, trees for shade, and astroturf— expenses typically covered by the school district for non-charter schools.
The charter school is hopeful that the County School Board will decide to support their efforts to revitalize the May Sands School complex by enabling them the use of the 100-400 buildings and space while also addressing their other noted issues. Though these agreements have yet to be finalized, Barras states that the name change and rebranding is an effort to show their commitment to being a part of the district.
“We are a public school of choice,” she concludes, with emphasis on the word public.
A choice they’d like to make available to more families who want it.