Will They Ever Learn?

All DPS board members should stay after school and write a hundred times on the blackboard: "Why screw up a program that works?"

"We've gone to the school board, we've gone to the mayor, we've gone to the governor," says Lereen Castellano. "If we have to, we'll go to the president."

But then, Castellano might have more luck in D.C.: The feds have already recognized the shining example set by Denver's Family Star Montessori center, where Castellano is the education director, and last fall named it one of only fifteen programs across the country slated for Early Head Start funding.

Now Castellano wonders if the Denver Public Schools has put that $4.3 million at risk.

Go to the head of the class.
Intrinsic to Family Star's success is its extended family--not just the relatives of the infants and toddlers enrolled in the Montessori program, but residents of the surrounding Cole community and, in particular, Family Star's closest neighbor: Mitchell Montessori elementary, the magnet school that DPS recently decided to move out of the Mitchell building and out of Five Points altogether.

Without Mitchell Montessori, there would be no Family Star. From her office windows, longtime Mitchell principal Martha Urioste watched as the nine-unit apartment complex across 33rd Avenue crumbled into a crackhouse. Even as that building disintegrated, though, Urioste's school was on a roll. In an attempt to bring new life to the Cole community--and, not incidentally, to bring white students into one of the system's most segregated schools--DPS had introduced a Montessori magnet at Mitchell in the mid-Eighties. By 1989 the school was a showplace--unlike the wreck across the street. So Urioste brought a group of parents, teachers, neighbors and community activists together, formed the nonprofit Family Star and adopted the eyesore. With some renovation money from the city and the help of hundreds of volunteers, they reopened the building in January 1991 as the Family Star Montessori Child and Parent Education Center.

Castellano was there from the beginning, one of five neighborhood women who signed up for Montessori training at Family Star. Today she is the center's most energetic advocate--but certainly not its only one. As she outlines the steps she's taken to keep Mitchell Montessori in the area, including paying a visit to Governor Roy Romer's office last Thursday, neighbors keep dropping in to see how they can help. On Saturday, for example, they plan to canvass the Cole community block by block to determine whether there really are 500 children who won't fit into other area schools--the justification the DPS board has given for turning Mitchell back into a "neighborhood" school.

Madeline Nealy will be out there counting. A grandmother, Nealy remembers being bused from this neighborhood to south Denver, where she was the only black student in her English class and the teacher asked if she belonged there. Now the end of busing in Denver could mean the end of a program that's crucial to the Cole community--and Nealy doesn't appreciate the irony. "The philosophy is: Keep them poor, keep them ignorant," she says.

Even though Mitchell Montessori is technically a magnet school, these neighbors think it's already more of a neighborhood school than its DPS replacement could ever be. "It works. It works so well," says Arthur Steed, a Cole resident whose youngest child attends Mitchell. "To think we struggled so long to get quality education in our neighborhood, and now we'll lose it."

In the press, Mitchell Montessori's supporters have come across as a flock of whining, white middle-class parents desperate to keep their precious program. But these articles never explain why these parents want to keep their precious program in the heart of Denver's black community, nor do they acknowledge the colorful makeup of Mitchell's classrooms. "Why have they ignored us?" Steed wonders. "Neighborhood people cannot understand why the school board is moving this program." He gathered some of those neighbors at a press conference to counter DPS's claims that the community doesn't support Mitchell, but that story never made the papers.

Half of Family Star's 55 children come from the surrounding neighborhood, from the 80205 zip code that's one of the poorest in the city. But the Family Star program goes only from infancy to age three. After that, the children move on to Mitchell, where they can continue their Montessori education through the sixth grade. The connections between these schools are far more fluid than that, however. In bad weather, the Family Star toddlers work off excess energy by toddling through Mitchell's long halls. Family Star workers (Castellano included) have children and even grandchildren at Mitchell; Mitchell students cross the street in the afternoon to help out with the infants. "Family Star is one of the few center-based programs in the country," Castellano says. "The effect ripples out from the classroom into the community."

Now she worries that those ripples could end abruptly. Although federal funding will enable Family Star to open a far bigger facility in the neighborhood next fall and to extend its program to children up to the age of five, after that the kids will be on their own. Without Mitchell Montessori, there will be no educational continuity. Without Mitchell Montessori, Family Star loses the symbiotic relationship that helped make it so special. Without Mitchell Montessori, perhaps Family Star will lose its federal funding altogether. "That's $4.3 million that comes to the neighborhood, to employ people in the neighborhood," Castellano says.

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