It’s a little more than two weeks until Sagebrush Elementary School opens for its first day of classes, and teachers and parents are hard at work.
There’s still painting and landscaping to do at the 1950s-era firehouse that the fledgling private Montessori school is leasing from the city of Richland.
More shelves need to be installed to hold models, strings of counting beads and other learning materials for the school’s almost 20 students.
“These next few weeks can’t go fast enough but they also can’t go slow enough,” said Jen Sandvig, one of the new school’s board members.
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Sagebrush Elementary won’t be the first Montessori school in the Tri-Cities, but with so many private schools tied to a specific faith, it will be the only nonfaith-based private school in the area.
“This fills a niche that’s been a void in the community,” said Susan Ayres, chairwoman of the school’s board of directors and a parent to two of its first students.
Ayres said many families in the Tri-Cities are attracted to a Montessori-based teaching style, which emphasizes hands-on and cooperative learning, students setting their own pace and personal exploration.
There are few options beyond kindergarten for Montessori in the area.
For years, parents with students at Sagebrush Montessori Preschool and Kindergarten asked its founder and director Karin Hines to start a grade school. Hines said she wanted a Montessori grade school in the Tri-Cities but didn’t have the time or resources to do it.
Local private schools that list a Montessori model also are faith-based, something Ayres said she and some other parents didn’t want.
Ayres said she initially planned to send her two sons, who will be first- and second-graders this year, to Oasis School. The Richland private K-8 school allowed students to learn at their own pace, taught integrated subjects and had an accepting atmosphere. But Oasis closed in June 2010 after declining enrollment and the lease for its building expired.
Parents of some of Hines’ students looked into starting a new grade school in April 2012. They formed a nonprofit to manage the school, got the lease to the firehouse on Wright Avenue and began seeking 15 to 18 first- and second-graders to kickoff the first year.
The firehouse previously was used by a preschool, so it already had some of the amenities a school needs. A garage bay is now a large classroom, with doors that can be opened during pleasant weather and a bank of windows flooding it with natural light. The side yard and playground are the size of the building itself and neighboring Frankfort Park provides additional green space.
The school will follow the Common Core State Standards, which cover language arts and math and are being adopted by most states around the country, including Washington. The school also is accredited by the Washington State Board of Education.
But the standards will be taught through the Montessori model, which means fewer textbooks and lectures and more handmade materials illustrating math, natural science and language.
The method extends to the teachers, as well as the students. Head teacher Samantha Garbush has been making most of the tools her students will use this year and while it takes a lot of time, she said it’s part of a Montessori education.
“When a student sees you made something, it shows them they can make it too,” said Garbush, who recently taught at a Montessori school in Indonesia.
School officials added the school’s culture is important and will be nonfaith-based partially so students of different faiths and backgrounds can feel welcome and accepted.
Sandvig’s daughter won’t be ready for grade school until next year, but the former Montessori teacher said helping start Sagebrush Elementary makes sure her daughter has an academic home when she’s ready.
“If we hadn’t had this option, we’d be homeschooling,” Sandvig said.
Eventually, the plan is to expand the school to the sixth-grade level with a maximum enrollment of 55 students. School officials are pursuing certification from the Association Montessori Internationale and establishing a foundation to provide scholarships and help families pay the $5,350 annual tuition.
That’s a few years into the future, but some in the community are already asking the school’s leaders to look further ahead.
“Someone’s already asked us what our plans are for a middle school,” Ayres said.