WINDHAM – A group of Lakes Region parents has submitted an application to the Maine Charter School Commission in hopes that it will receive approval needed to open a public Montessori charter school in Windham next fall.

According to the group’s 610-page application, the proposed Many Hands Montessori School would plan to accept 40 students strictly for grades K-3 in the 2014-2015 school year, although the student population could reach as high as 60 that year. The school would grow by one grade each year, and by the 2018-2019 school year, organizers said there would likely be 85 students at the school, with a maximum, potential student population of 122.

The K-8 school would include a “racially and culturally diverse community of students, parents and staff, dedicated to creating a peaceful environment,” according to the application, which can be found on the commission’s website.

“It is an encouraging and vibrant environment rich with practical teaching materials, encouraging of self-guided learning,” according to the mission statement in the application. “Our students will celebrate, protect, and cultivate our beautiful Maine land. Agricultural-based projects and partnerships will both encourage environmental stewardship, and will strengthen our investment in community-building.”

The commission received four applications before its Dec. 2 deadline, and it will vote on Jan. 30 to decide whether each application will receive a public hearing. On March 4, the commissioners will cast a final vote on each proposal.

In 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed legislation that set up the commission, and gave it the authority to authorize as many as 10 public charter schools before June 30, 2022. The commission has already approved five charter schools so far.

If approved, the Many Hands school would be funded on a per-pupil basis, as determined by the state’s essential programs and services funding formula. According to the Maine Department of Education’s website, the average per-pupil rate for the 2011-12 year was $6,254 for an elementary school student, and $6,705 for a secondary school student.

The Many Hands organizing group, most of whom are from Windham and have children attending the Little Log Cabin Montessori School on Tandberg Trail in North Windham, will now begin to raise funds and search for a suitable property, according to Jennifer Benham, a Windham resident and the chairwoman of the proposed school’s seven-person board of directors. Many Hands, if approved, would be a separate entity from Little Log Cabin, according to Benham.

“I would expect many families from Little Log Cabin Montessori School will enter their children in the lottery to attend Many Hands,” Benham wrote, in an email. “There may be opportunities for the two schools to collaborate, but one is not an extension of the other.”

The Many Hands parents have circulated a letter of intent, and have received 107 likes on their Facebook page. Although the board would fill the majority of student slots through a random lottery open to applicants from across the state, up to 10 percent of the slots could be reserved for “students of preference” likely children of founders, board members, and full-time teachers. Benham has two daughters who attend Little Log Cabin.

If approved, the Many Hands school would only be required to provide public transportation to its “catchment area,” which includes Windham, Raymond and Westbrook.

According to Misse Carolan, who would be Many Hands’ head of school, the goal is to eventually have four classes: Kindergarten, grades 1-3, 4-6 and 7-8.

“That allows children to work independently, at their own pace, but within their group of peers,” said Carolan, a Montessori-trained teacher from North Yarmouth. “Meaning, you are a first-grade student but you’re reading at a third-grade level, you’ll still be with your peers, but still continuing to progress at your own pace.

The board hopes to hire two teachers and two teacher’s assistants, a head of school, a nurse, a bus driver, and a cafeteria manager.

Local school boards have the ability to authorize charter schools, as well. Benham said that the Windham-Raymond Regional School Unit 14 School Board turned down the Many Hands parents’ request for a charter school authorization in the spring.

The board members recommended that the Many Hands parents seek authorization from the state charter commission, according to chairwoman Catriona Sangster.

“We have a lot going on in our district from consolidation,” Sangster said. “We really felt we needed to focus on what our current needs were.”

Benham said that the board has received a number of letters from families interested in sending their children to the proposed public charter school. Many Montessori schools are privately operated.

“There are so many families that would be [financially] prohibited to have a Montessori education, which is a philosophy that I believe very strongly in,” Benham said. “My daughters have great success in the Montessori preschool. There are so many values that ring true and are important in today’s society, I think.”

Carolan said that the Montessori approach, originally developed by the Italian physician Maria Montessori, helps children develop positive skills for the workplace as well as life, in general.

“The Montessori philosophy offers a good alternative to public school education,” she said. “It’s very independent learning, but it’s also very community-based, and a lot of social aspects to it. Children not only work independently in the classroom, they work in small groups. Or it might be a large group project, so they’re really learning a lot of skills of working with other people, give and take those kind of skills that are needed in jobs.”

Carolan said that older Many Hands students would learn the basics of agriculture and independent small business by growing produce and selling it at local farmers’ markets.

“The children are learning how to grow the food, harvest the food, raise animals, run the business part of it, and then also be the face of the business,” she said. “They’re going into their teenage years, and they’re wanting financial independence and they need to learn how to work and have a job and learn job responsibility. Those are really important skills for teens.”

“There’s a lot of ecological-based studies, and so that’s a good way to teach them sustainability,” Carolan said. “They become really good problem-solvers, which we need in our world.”

For more information, contact Benham at [email protected].

Misse Carolan, left, and Jennifer Benham are involved in the effort to open the Many Hands Montessori School, a public charter school in Windham. If the Maine Charter School Commission accepts the school’s application, Carolan would be the head of school, and Benham would chair the school’s board of directors.  

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