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Planting a Montessori charter school in the lakes area

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The Montessori method is a way of learning many people in the Brainerd lakes area may not be familiar with — until now.

Discovery Woods Montessori School will open Sept. 6 in Brainerd, a public charter school for students in kindergarten through fifth-grade. The school will open with 100 students its first year with a goal to grow to about 125 students the second year and about 150 students the third year.

Courtney Neifert, interim director for Discovery Woods, said last week that the school was nearly fully enrolled to 100 students in K-5. The school has a large waiting list for its kindergarten class and smaller waiting lists in second- through fourth-grades. Class sizes will be about 24-26 students per class. 

Neifert said the school is hoping to open another kindergarten class next year. 

Discovery Waters, a private Montessori preschool program, is also housed at the new school, located behind the Veterans Administration Brainerd Community Outpatient Clinic, at 810 Northwest Seventh Street in Brainerd. The preschoolers will attend class with kindergarten students in the morning and only kindergarten students will be together in the afternoon. 

When the school opens, it will be the result of three years of hard work and planning by organizers, who had hoped to open last year but new charter school regulations enacted by the state Department of Education delayed its opening.  

In a Montessori education, children learn at their own pace with educational materials that may seem odd, yet make sense when you discover these objects, like numerical rods, wooden prisms, binomial and trinomial cubes, fraction skittles, puzzle maps and geometric solids, give students a visual and hands-on way of exploring math, science, geography and other subjects. 

While two area schools have closed in the past year — Emily Charter School and Family of Christ Lutheran School in Baxter — Neifert said she and other organizers believe Discovery Woods will do well. No other similar learning opportunity exists in the Brainerd lakes area, particularly a program that is free for parents. 

“We feel that the Montessori philosophy will draw parents who never had this opportunity before,” Neifert said. 

Students and their families applying to attend the new charter school are coming from Brainerd, Baxter, Pequot Lakes, Pillager, Lake Shore, Fort Ripley, Merrifield, Ironton, Cushing, and a few families have recently moved this summer from the Twin Cities and other states, Neifert said. 

Montessori is based on research and teaching methods developed by Italian Maria Montessori, 1870-1952.

The goal of Montessori education is to develop a lifelong love of learning in a child. The classroom environment is filled with specific materials that encourage the child to explore and learn within this prepared environment, while developing their creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and time-management skills. 

Classes are multi-aged, which allows children to learn from the children and adults within the room. In the mornings at Discovery Woods, students will receive a new lesson each day on one subject, which could be science, math, geography or language. The subject changes each day. Students then are allowed a three-hour work period where they can work uninterrupted and independently on concepts from the previous day or expand on the subject that was introduced in the morning. By the end of the school week, students will have mastered the subject matter they were meant to learn, yet they may have arrived at that point at different times or in different ways.

“They’re more engaged,” Nicci Johnson, owner of Discovery Waters and a Discovery Woods fourth-through fifth-grade teacher, “I feel, because they’re working on something they’re interested in.”

Johnson said she believes Montessori education fosters independence in children and seems to better follow the development of the child more so than traditional teaching methods. 

Discovery Woods students will need to undergo state assessment testing as do all other Minnesota students. 

The school received a Statewide Health Improvement Program grant this summer and used the funds to construct a garden for students and purchased healthy eating educational materials. The school will rent 4,500 square feet of recreational space for gym from the Brainerd V.A. clinic, which is located across the parking lot from the school. 

The school shares its building with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church but the church is now in the process of fundraising to move to land that has been purchased so Discovery Woods will likely take over that space in the future so the school can grow, said Neifert. 

Neifert said the school will begin construction on a natural playground sometime within the next year, which will include bridges, boulders, branches, shrubs for physical and imaginative play. 

For more information about Discovery Woods, visit

JODIE TWEED may be reached at or 855-5858.

Becca Clemens
After graduating high school in 2004, I attended Central Lakes College in Staples, MN for 2 years where I got a diploma in Communication Art and Design. I then transfered up to Bemidji State University in, you guessed it, Bemidji, MN. In the spring of 2009, I graduated from BSU. Then in the fall of 2009 I got a job at Echo Publishing, a sister company to the Brainerd Dispatch.