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Many Rivers Montessori experiences growth and eyes expansion

4th grade classmates (from left) Coco Ciardelli, Agnes Barthel and Sydney Schaefer, look up the first and last words in a stack of different dictionaries during a lesson at Many Rivers Montessori School. They arrived at "a" for the first and "zygotic" for last in one of the bigger volumes. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 8
Kindergarten students work on a variety of activities at Many Rivers Montessori School on a recent Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 8
Eric Wahl, in second grade at Many Rivers Montesorri School, reads a book on presidents during class Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 8
Soren VanTassel, in the first grade at Many Rivers Montessori School, writes in the names of the states in his hand-drawn map of the U.S. during class time Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 8
Second-grader Tae Harstad-Johnson uses an abacus to work out addition problems on his math sheet during class at Many Rivers Montessori School. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 8
Kristi VanTassel, toddler teacher at Many Rivers Montessori School in Duluth, plays a game identifying insects with (from left) Freya VanTassel, Paul Gan and Flynn Estabrook during class on a recent afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 8
Martha Kliewer (left) works with a math wrap-up to practice her addition in math while Talulah Lanik-Parr learns numbers in French using flash cards at Many Rivers Montessori School on a recent Tuesday morning. The classroom features multiple grades of students doing lessons and studying in the same open space. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com7 / 8
Andrea Christopherson, upper elementary teacher, teachers her students how to add fractions with unlike denominators during a class at Many Rivers Montessori School on a recent Tuesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com8 / 8

Housed in the lower level of the former Jefferson School on East Third Street, a different kind of school is holding class in Duluth.

Many Rivers Montessori, in only its second school year, is experiencing growth. The school — which currently serves children from toddlers to age 12 — had 77 students enrolled the first year, but that grew to 100 students this year.

“I think there’s a real need for high-quality early childhood and elementary education,” head of school Mark Niedermier said of the factors leading to such rapid growth.

Although Niedermier said he expects only an additional 10 percent increase in enrollment going into next school year, the school is continuing to grow in other ways, too. School leaders plan to add middle-school instruction — grades 7 and 8 — next fall.

Montessori schools follow an educational system developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. It’s often characterised by highly-tactile problem-solving activities for younger children. For all ages, the method relies on independence and freedom.

“The students are in charge of their day,” said Andrea Christopherson, an upper elementary teacher at Many Rivers.

“Each of the students have goals that they try to fulfill every day,” she explained. “They’re all different depending on what they need to be doing every day and depending on where they’re at with work.”

By the time a student reaches the middle school, there is less of the “traditional Montessori equipment,” and more of a focus on research, report writing, investigations, entrepreneurship, student-organized field trips called “going out,” and the typical coursework for high school preparation, Niedermier said.

After the toddler and primary classrooms, Many Rivers Montessori students follow three-year bands: lower elementary from first through third grade, upper elementary from fourth through sixth grade, and — starting next year — middle school. That’s typically seventh through ninth grade, but because Duluth high schools start with ninth grade, Many Rivers plans to only go through eighth grade.

With other alternative middle school options in Duluth already up and running, will there be enough interested students to support the Many Rivers middle school? Niedermier thinks so.

“I look at all that as healthy competition … Duluth is well served having multiple options,” he said.

Creating — and growing — a school

In October 2014, a group of 30 or so parents set in motion their plan to establish a new Montessori school in Duluth. The focus was on securing a facility, obtaining licenses and hiring teachers.

“There was a core of parents who had this vision of what they wanted in Montessori education. They wanted a toddler through middle school program and so they kind of banded together and recruited a few teachers and found this space. They were big on vision,” Niedermier said. “(But) there wasn’t quite as much money as we would have liked.”

So the parents found an alternative: volunteering.

“One of the reasons we were able to do it is, not only were people able to contribute financially, but they were willing to give their time,” said John Kliewer, head of the Many Rivers board.

More than 10,000 hours of volunteer labor were put into renovating the lower level of Jefferson School on East Third Street facing St. Luke’s hospital. Even Niedermier’s head of school responsibilities were run by parent volunteers until he was hired last March.

Three months into their second school year, Many Rivers is now in a phase of stability, Kliewer said, but he added that the school is looking forward to fulfilling their mission long-term and growing strategically.

“I would say our vision is unchanged but what we’re focused on has changed a lot.” said Kliewer.

The school is also working to become fully accredited through the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, or ISACS, which can take five years. Marshall School in Duluth is the only fully-accredited ISACS school currently in the Twin Ports area.

Many Rivers anticipates to be recognized by American Montessori International/USA soon, too. Most of Many Rivers’ teachers already are trained by them, Niedermier added.

“Our vision is to provide an exceptional school, but it’s also really to raise the temperature for education in all of Duluth,” Kliewer said.

Many Rivers just posted an ad for a middle school teacher. Initially, they planned to wait for middle school enrollment to solidify before adding a middle school teacher, but the hiring of a teacher could boost enrollment, Niedermier said.

“We’re planning to start modestly with the middle school,” Niedermier said. “Our planning dynamic is looking at seven students — keeping our sixth graders moving up and getting a few other kids and trying to open on a seven-student basis, though growing over time of course”

Although Niedermier said he does not expect another 33 percent jump in enrollment for next year, school officials still are eying long-term growth.

“We don’t exactly know how much demand there is, but I can see us being double — maybe even triple — this size,” Kliewer said.

But with growth, the young school faces new challenges.

“We are still wrestling with the facilities issue,” Niedermier said.

Although the current space is working for now, Niedermier said “this is not our long-term home.” As the school grows, they’ll look at other options including expanding in their current building, renting spaces within walking distance, or moving to a new location altogether.

The school also started offering financial aid this year. Many Rivers is a tuition-based school, with close to three quarters of their income coming from it.

Currently, a maximum financial award might be up to one-third of the tuition — but much like the school itself, “it’s something we’re committed to expanding over time,” Niedermier said.