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THE PROMISE -- AND PERIL: Of Grant Elementary's new Montessori pre-school, Part 1

Can a visionary but pragmatic administrator and two hedge fund managers really help poor kids?

COLUMBIA, 5/24/12 (Op-Ed) -- Parents and students who knew Beverly Borduin when she headed up Grant Elementary School would probably agree that if they had to pick one word to describe her, it would be "visionary."
 
Borduin reworked Grant's leadership culture, made the school ship shape, and spearheaded construction of the world's first "Eco-Schoolhouse," an innovative, Nick Peckham-designed replacement for a classroom trailer destroyed in a fire. She had other visions, too, most notably creation of a Montessori-style preschool for low-income children that could help start the K-12 years right.

"I saw so many kids coming to Kindergarten completely unprepared, especially kids on free-and-reduced price lunch from poor families," Borduin told me. "The preschool opportunities, for them, just aren't there."
 
A head start
 
Head Start and other government programs supplement preschool education for some children.
 
But the best preschool experiences, particularly in Columbia, tend to be private, and carry the famous Montessori moniker, from the Italian educator Maria Montessori. Borduin thought if she could re-create that experience, but for families without the means to pay a $6,000 or higher yearly tuition, she could help children in need today, and create a model for schools tomorrow.

In other words, duplicate the success of Eco-Schoolhouse, but with an educational curriculum.

Borduin tried to secure funding for years. She approached the state; combed through Federal grants; talked to local district officials. "But it just wasn't there," she explained. "No one has any money." When she started approaching private donors, she started seeing success.

Enter an issue facing educators everywhere: a declining pool of public money. Some observers blame tax incentive programs for slowly draining local coffers. Others blame unions for unreasonable demands. Still others say legislatures and voters are increasingly reluctant to shell out more tax dollars, especially as average folks bear an increasing burden of property taxes.
 
The same problem has been the crux of a loud, local argument against more tax incentives for corporate constituents. But so far, the case against tax breaks is failing to resonate at any level of elected leadership.
 
A potential answer presented itself to Borduin: a public-private partnership complete with $50,000 seed money. Private donors probably couldn't do it all, so a Montessori school housed at Grant Elementary might work. Students who couldn't afford to pay would get multiple subsidies: from scholarships; from Columbia Public Schools (CPS); and from families who could afford full tuition. Half of the students in each class would qualify as low-income.
 
But with that solution comes an important rub: Under the Grant Montessori school's present construction, no guarantees exist that poor kids will always be able to attend. At $700/month full tuition versus a $50/month scholarship rate, the difference could mean Borduin's vision sinks under the same financial weight now troubling schools around the nation: a growing resource gap between kids who have, and kids who have not.
 
Next:  The Return of the Native

Part 2
 
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