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A tale of two moms

Two stay-at-home moms, who met because their children attend preschool together, have spearheaded the process of opening a Montessori-based elementary charter school in the Brainerd/Baxter area as early as September 2010.

Courtney Neifert, of Baxter, and Nicole Mills, of East Gull Lake, have found that there is a lot of interest in the Brainerd area for a Montessori-based, tuition-free elementary school. The volunteer group of parents and community members who support the concept, including Nisswa real estate developer Charles McQuinn, another initial co-founder, have found a sponsor for the proposed charter school, the Audubon Center of the North Woods of Sandstone, which also sponsors the Crosslake Community School.

Nicole Mills (left), her son, Christian, 3, and Courtney Neifert, her daughter, Lindsey, 3, and Mills' son, Travis, 5, played Monday with Montessori-based learning toys at Neifert's home in Baxter. Mills and Neifert, both stay-at-home moms, are in the process of developing a Montessori-based charter school in the Brainerd lakes area to open September 2010. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.

Their application for a charter school planning grant for the proposed Discovery Woods Montessori School was recently submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education. They should find out within the next 90 days if they receive state approval for the proposed kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school. Once approved, a director will be hired who will help start and run the school. A building will be found to lease for the school. And the search is now on for seven people who would be willing to serve as school board members and for teachers and teaching assistants.

The school would start with 76-100 students the first year. In future years it could grow to around 200 students in grades kindergarten through eighth-grade. Neifert said they already have more than 40 students whose parents have expressed interest in enrolling them in the new charter school. Kindergarten class sizes would be capped at 24 students while other classes would be capped at 26 students.

Neifert and her family moved to Baxter six years ago. She has her elementary Montessori certification and used to teach at a private Montessori school in Ohio and worked at a Montessori preschool in Germany. Her children, Brandon, 6, and Lindsey, 3, attend the private Brainerd Montessori Preschool at Park Methodist Church as do Mills' children, Travis, 5, and Christian, 3.

The women found there was an interest in a tuition-free Montessori elementary school by other Montessori parents and they created a Web site and hosted three public meetings to discuss the possibility. They also surveyed parents and community members anywhere they could - at restaurants and sporting events - and of the 117 people surveyed, 93 percent felt a Montessori charter school would benefit the community and 86 percent of them had children ages 3-10. Of those, 73 percent said they would consider sending their children to the charter school.

Mills said the group initially asked the Brainerd School District to be a sponsor of the school but school officials declined. While Discovery Woods may end up attracting students from Brainerd Schools, thus taking their state funding with them, Mills said it will also benefit the community by giving parents an alternative.

"We're not saying traditional school is bad, we're not saying the Brainerd School District is bad, we're saying this is another option," said Mills. Her mother, Nancy Moritz, helped found the Emily Charter School.

Neifert said she and other organizers have checked out potential locations for Discovery Woods. The school must lease and not own a facility and it needs to be at least 15,000 square feet. They are considering a commercial building on Mill Avenue and the former Whittier Elementary School in north Brainerd, among others. While Whittier would be an ideal location for the school, the cost of getting the building up to code might be cost prohibitive, said Neifert. The school would need to be handicapped-accessible, which means an elevator would need to be installed, something the Brainerd district did not need to do since it offers other handicapped-accessible elementary schools.

"We would love to use Whittier as a school," said Neifert. "I know the neighborhood would love it."

When Discovery Woods hires teachers, the teachers would have to undergo seven weeks of training next summer in St. Paul in the Montessori method if they don't have the certification. The Montessori method, founded by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907, is an alternative child-centered educational method that stresses the importance of children teaching themselves in a prepared environment where they freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.

Neifert and Mills said that Montessori-based learning teaches children many things, including how to be independent, courtesy and respect, life skills and a desire and enthusiasm for learning.

For more information about Discovery Woods, the Montessori method or to be considered as a potential school board member, visit the Web site, www.discoverywoods.com.

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.

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