School shuffle

Parkway Elementary, which housed L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion school, will be converted into a Montessori elementary school this summer. (photos courtesy of St. Paul Public Schools)

An artist rendering of a classroom at the new Montessori Middle School. The rooms will be clustered in pods and designed to allow students to move around within the room and between rooms more effectively, says Steve Unowsky, assistant superintendent for middle schools at St. Paul Public Schools.

L’Etoile du Nord moves out of Parkway, and in comes a new kind of middle school

The Ames and Prosperity buildings where L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion school is relocating have been updated, shined and polished. They’re more or less ready for the 2013-2014 school year.

With school out Friday, June 7, the old French Immersion building, known as Parkway, is going to get a makeover.

Tom Parent, facility planning manager at St. Paul Public Schools, has 10 weeks to convert the old elementary building into a middle school. And this isn’t an ordinary middle school -- rather, the district is turning it into a Montessori middle school, with accreditation from the American Montessori Society.

“It’s quite a significant amount of construction,” Parent said, but “it’s doable.”

Crews will change around the interior layout of the building to adapt it to Montessori-oriented layout.

“This is the one that is going to entertain us pretty well this summer,” he added.

A rarity

To do a middle school is one thing, but a large public Montessori middle school is fairly unprecedented.

“Middle school Montessori is extremely rare,” said Steve Unowsky, assistant superintendent for middle schools at St. Paul Public Schools.

So rare that the new one could easily end up being one of the largest in the country, said Tim Hofmann, who’s in charge of setting up the curriculum and teacher training. Hofmann will be the principal at the school.

“It’s really an opportunity to be a trailblazing group as we set up the traditions together,” he said.

For the first year, 2013-2014, there will be sixth- and seventh-grade classes. Some students will be coming out of Montessori elementary schools in the district, while others will be from standard public schools. Hofmann said he’s expecting a fairly even mix.

In terms of numbers, there’s no way of knowing how many will come in the school’s first year, but he said the idea student body would be around 350 kids in the first year, and about 525 students total when an eighth-grade class is added for the 2014-2015 school year. Hofmann said he expects there will be a fairly even split between kids from the East Side and kids from other parts of the city.

While most Montessoris do a slow-build model, where the class size gradually increases, St. Paul schools don’t really have that option. They have to go whole hog to make it work, Hofmann said.

“We don’t have the resources or the time to do it bit by bit,” he explained.


The middle school Montessori idea is so new to the Midwest that there aren’t training programs for teachers to get certification, Hoffman said.

“An actual full-fledged certification course doesn’t exist,” he said. “We’re building it.”

He’s working with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program to build a program from scratch.

Twenty teachers and faculty will go through a rigorous 20-credit summer program, and will do additional coursework throughout the school year, which will amount to the equivalent of a master’s degree.

A few faculty members have previous Montessori experience, but many of them are new to the teaching philosophy and methods, Hofmann said.

Hofmann himself has Montessori experience from his time at the now-defunct middle school Montessori program at Humboldt, and will be going through the same training regimen as his staff.

Why Montessouri?

Unowski said the move to put in a Montessori middle school comes as a result of demand from parents.

Parents were telling administrators that “we want this now,” Hofmann said. “(They) were basically saying that they weren’t happy with the middle schools in St. Paul. ... They were leaving, going to charter schools, private schools or out of district.”

“The time is right,” he said, to bring in the individualized teaching method.

The transition comes as part of a larger initiative of the school system called the “Strong Schools, Strong Communities Plan.”

According to the school website, the Montessori method involves “independent inquiry rooted in each student’s interests and learning style.”

The school will offer vocal and instrumental music, dance, theater, visual arts, world languages and computer-aided design courses in addition to standard curriculum.

In terms of the daily routines at Parkway Montessori Middle School, Hofmann said, “It’s going to look like a normal middle school” with seven periods and seven different teachers for each student. The idea is to create “a bridge to high school, college and the world beyond.”

There will be days with a more traditional structure, with lectures, labs, group work and assignments. Teachers will then do an assessment to see where everyone’s at, after which “for three or four days there will be kids doing their own thing,” Hofman said. For a student who understands the material right away, this might mean working on an independent project to delve deeper into the material. For a student who’s struggling, they get the chance for more one-on-one attention.

Typically, Montessoris have an overarching theme for a school year. Hofmann gave the example of “natural disasters” as a theme. The topic can then be broken down into different sub-themes, to explore different subject areas -- you can look at math when considering the cost of repairs and reconstruction after a tornado, for instance, or look at the natural science behind a tornado, or use literary anecdotes about a person’s experience during a tornado.

Using this method, “you can begin to see interconnectedness” between disciplines, Hofmann said, and engage students with a variety of strengths and interests.

French Immersion stays on East Side

L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion school will be splitting into two buildings for the 2013-2014 school year. The Ames and Prosperity buildings were closed for at least a year and have been revamped to be ready for the new students. This involved replacing floor tiles and blackboards, which had some amount of asbestos, as well as changing out door hardware, improving wheelchair accessibility, and updating the entryways.

Kindergarden and first grade will be located in Prosperity Elementary at 1305 Prosperity Ave.

“That building functions very well as a little-kid building,” Parent said.

The second through fifth grades will go to the Ames building at 1760 Ames Place.

Together, the buildings will allow for a slightly larger capacity. The Parkway building could handle about 600 kids, whereas, combined the two new spots can collectively handle around 700 kids, said Andrew Collins, assistant superintendent for elementary schools at St. Paul Schools.

With the French Immersion program having a consistent waiting list, that could mean letting more kids in.

That said, the schools aren’t exactly trying to squeeze in as many kids as they have capacity for.

“We’d like to get a little bit away from the notion of capacity,” said Parent.  “Really, our goal is to say ‘how many kids do we think we can have the academics and the physical environment supported well?’ ”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

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