Marfa schools face Montessori classroom shutterings, low enrollment, COVID concerns

Marfa schools face Montessori classroom shutterings, low enrollment, COVID concerns

MARFA  Marfa schools were back in session on Monday, but numbers released by the district reveal a continued decline in enrollment. Superintendent Oscar Aguero called the low enrollment a “perfect storm,” with COVID concerns, a declining population in the city and a sudden cut to the Montessori program all factoring into the final enrollment of just 249 students on Monday, down from previous years that topped 300 students.

The district axed two Montessori classes in the days leading up to the new school year, leaving parents scrambling to acclimate their students to the traditional classroom setting or find alternative options for schooling.

“The sad part of education is that it’s a business at times, and that’s not the best way to look at it, but unfortunately we have to look at it on that side because of funding,” said Superintendent Aguero this week, discussing the district’s cutting of Eliza Barton’s Montessori grades 1-3 and Cheri Aguero’s Montessori grades 4-6 classes.

Aguero said prior to the shuttering of those classes, only six students had enrolled in each of the two Montessori classes. The pre-kindergarten through kindergarten Montessori class with teacher Emily Steriti, which has stayed intact, has 14 students this year.

In a letter delivered to the school board on Monday, Mrs. Aguero (a Montessori teacher, who is also married to the superintendent) said she had felt tension among the school community about the program. Since the Montessori program merged with Marfa ISD in 2013, it had grown organically, filling a crucial role for students with different learning styles and helping the district comply with state mandates.

One mandate requires schools to have one teacher to every 22 students, meaning the district was adding and moving teachers anytime a grade that had 23 or more students advanced to the next school year. By having a multi-grade Montessori program accompanying the traditional program starting in 2013, the school was able to satisfy state requirements without moving and retraining teachers.

Mrs. Aguero said in her letter that as the Montessori program thrived and grew from pre-k through kindergarten and into grades 1-3 and then 4-6, tensions built between traditional staff and Montessori staff, “not to mention students and parents from both types of learning.”

When the idea of a Montessori middle school class emerged, the animosity rose higher, and Mrs. Aguero hesitated to promote the program or recruit new students into it. At the same time, she noted, enrollment in the program was waning. In the 2016-2017 year, the program had 50 students. By 2018-2019, it had grown to a robust 59, but in the years since, a sharp decline has taken hold. Enrollment in 2019-2020 was 45. The following year was 40.

Both the superintendent and Mrs. Aguero pointed to a number of factors contributing to the decline in enrollment. Families moved away to areas with more industries and jobs, coronavirus impacted the hands-on learning of Montessori especially hard, the birth rate in town is in decline, and with the school prohibited from mandating many COVID precautions, some parents pulled their students out and home schooled or put them into private schools.

Some Montessori parents that spoke with The Big Bend Sentinel this week noted that there was no box to check that said they wanted their student in Montessori when they were enrolling at Marfa ISD and others noted that the program did not have a page on the district’s website. Aguero acknowledged that the Montessori program’s enrollment mainly relied on word of mouth, rather than information supplied by the district.

The 2021-2022 Montessori program faced a five-year low, enrolling 26 students across the three classes, and the traditional program was losing students too. The original usefulness of Montessori as a flexible class that could absorb overflow from classes bigger than 22 students had disappeared, as no traditional classes from pre-K to sixth grade had more than 20 students this year.

At a board meeting Monday night, Aguero announced Mrs. Aguero would be moved into a position teaching math and science for grades 5 and 6, and Ms. Barton would take on a new role as a math and science interventionist.

“We are not abandoning the [Montessori] program, I want y’all to understand that,” he told the board. “If the need comes, we can bring it back,” though he said traditional program enrollments would need to grow to justify adding back Montessori. Counselor Luane Porter highlighted the new programs that she hopes will draw students to attend Marfa ISD, including the revival of student council, NHS, one act play, choir and more.

“I am fiscally responsible for the money of the district,” Aguero said. “At this point it was not a wise decision to say you’d be working with six kids when I can use you to service 25 kids.”

The fiscal savings were cold comfort for Montessori parents, who were stunned by the sudden announcements last week and mourned the loss of the program.

Marfa resident Chris Mackie said that when he and his wife arrived in Marfa, they tried to enroll their son in the kindergarten Montessori program, but were told the program was full. (Superintendent Aguero refuted that, saying Montessori classes had not been full in previous years and that that information could not have come from administration. However, other parents also reported being turned away from the program in previous years like Mackie.)

It took a year to get in, but Mackie said that the Montessori program had allowed his son to thrive, and the news of the class disappearing was a shock. While fellow parents advised he and his wife, an MISD teacher, to move their son to Alpine’s private Montessori school or to the Valentine school district, it wasn’t feasible for the couple.

“We came here to work,” Mackie said of his and his wife’s move to town a couple years ago. “We’re invested in the community and school and everything.” While he says it was tough to tell his son that he wouldn’t be returning to the Montessori program, the family is committed to attending MISD and being a part of the school community. “It just feels like we were treated with a lack of regard, like they didn’t care enough,” he said, since news of the program’s demise came via a call from the teacher rather than the district or principal.

Other parents were similarly upset by the news, praising the now-hobbled program. “When I had the opportunity to look into the Montessori program, I realized if you don’t learn in a traditional fashion, the Montessori program opens up a whole world to you,” said LeAna Clifton, a parent who has chosen to take her student out of the Marfa schools in light of her daughter’s class being eliminated. “We feel the Montessori students are being penalized because the rest of the school is failing,” said LeAna’s husband, Glen Clifton.

Their daughter, heading into second grade, has compromised lungs, and with a larger class size in the traditional program, the couple ultimately chose to begin homeschooling. “They’re forcing us to make decisions that none of us can afford,” LeAna remarked. “I don’t have a trust fund; Glen and I work for every cent we earn.” But with LeAna’s dyslexia making it tough to teach, the family felt they had no choice but to enroll their daughter in an online program for $500 a month.

If enrollment at the school has to increase for the Montessori program to return, the Cliftons believe the school had gotten rid of an attractive option that would be a draw for new families to move to Marfa and enroll in the free program, which in other places like Alpine, is privatized and comes at a cost to the families.

Other MISD parents had pulled their students out of school this year based solely on COVID concerns. Vince Fuentez, who took his two children out of the Montessori program during COVID, said, “There was no way we were going to put our kids in danger or the community in danger,” noting that the school had to follow the Texas Education Agency rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the Monday school board meeting, Aguero lamented the TEA being at odds with the CDC. In place of CDC guidelines, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s government has implemented a variety of restrictions on schools, including a controversial ban on mask mandates. Last year, schools were exempt from the governor’s ban on mask mandates, but this year, the state decided schools could only recommend, not require, masks in the classroom.

Aguero told the board that while he considered defying the governor’s orders like larger districts in Austin, Dallas and Houston had already done, he hesitated to leave his staff with the decision to either obey direction from their boss or their governor. He planned to follow the latest state and school district news on mask mandates, which has unfolded rapidly over the past week, with districts defying the governor and the state fighting back, and reconsider mask mandates again later.

Aguero announced that the school would continue to notify students and parents if anyone they had been exposed to had tested positive for coronavirus. As a parent himself, the superintendent said he would feel wrong knowing that exposure information if he did not pass it along to his fellow parents at the district. The district would also have students quarantine at home after exposure. Staff at the meeting discussed the closure of the Iraan-Sheffield district, when, after only six days of classes, nearly 16 percent of students and 28 percent of teachers had quarantined because they were COVID-positive or were exposed to it.

Boardmember Rene Gonzales asked if the district had any information about making vaccines for athletes mandatory. While their lawyer agreed it was possible, along the lines of requiring drug testing for athletes, Board Member Yolanda Jurado said, “I would just caution mandating something that’s not FDA approved.” COVID vaccines currently on the market only have emergency use authorizations from the FDA at this time.

Aguero responded, “I believe in the vaccine, so I’m going to promote it. To mandate something that’s not FDA approved is going to be tough, and even though you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you’re totally protected from it.”

All the school could do was “recommend,” he told the board. “We’re just really in a tricky spot – and it has come from our government.” While he understood Abbott’s urging for “personal responsibility” in getting vaccinated and taking precautions, Aguero remarked that it was tough when half the school is not eligible for the vaccine because they are under the age of 12.

For parents who did not feel safe sending their students into the classrooms without a mask, online remote learning is also not an option this year. The blended in-person and remote or all-remote options had fallen by the wayside, as students last year showed unprecedented academic struggles under online schooling conditions.

Aguero shared some particularly concerning results from the state’s mandated STAAR test, revealing the low performance of many students last year. While they met their goal in reading, math scores last year lagged.

The goal was for 39 percent of third graders to reach the “meet” level where, with minimal intervention, they are likely to pass the test next year. Instead, only 16 percent reached that goal. In third grade, no students hit the highest level of “mastered” in math or reading.

“STAAR data last year told us we need to switch our mindset a little bit and get support on the math side,” Aguero told the board. When the superintendent saw that enrollment with Montessori “wasn’t working out,” he said, Elementary School Principal Amy White’s idea to add a math and science interventionist became a natural transition for Montessori teacher Barton, who had experience in math instruction. “I think we’ll get a big benefit from it and see some gains this year,” the superintendent said.

This week, the Cliftons mulled over whether they would return to MISD if the Montessori program was revived. “Will we go back? Do we trust the school enough to put our kiddo back in the school? I’m not sure,” LeAna said. “I trust Eliza Barton and Cheri Aguero and Emily Steriti, but do I trust the administration with my child’s best interest at heart? I don’t know. I’m going to give this homeschooling thing a go, and if it’s successful, we might never go back.”