Montessori director fights program's removal from BHS

Originally published in the Ballard News Tribune

After more than six years providing care for young children and hands-on learning for high schoolers, Casa Maria Montessori Language and Cultural Center was packed up this week and moved from its home at Ballard High School to a storage garage.

According to Seattle Public Schools, the termination of Casa Maria's lease, which was announced in December, was a result of a lack of space and the need for the high school make room for programs for students with autism.

Casa Maria Director Gail Longo said she was led to believe the partnership between Casa Maria and Ballard High School was long term. She said she the removal of the program was surprising and unnatural.

"I realized that I placed my trust in a system that I regarded as having shared goals for the education of youth, aware of the possibility that our program at Ballard High would open the way to greater understanding of what it means to be human in the 21st Century," Longo said.

The nonprofit Casa Maria, which was leasing the space at Ballard High School rent free, provided childcare for up to 20 children from the ages of 3 to 5.

In addition, the program provided skills training for students enrolled in Ballard's Career and Technical Education Family and Consumer Science classes.

Longo said Casa Maria acted as a field site for approximately 60 high school students who were studying human development and parenting. The program prepared students for future careers by providing vocational training, she said.

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Theresa Whipple said the School District needed to find room for one or two Self-Contained, Developmentally Delayed Special Education programs at Ballard High School.

Casa Maria has the perfect space for those programs, and the School District needs to prioritize Ballard High School students over other uses, Whipple said.

Longo said she has documents that show the Casa Maria space, which includes an outdoor play area, is designated for childcare only. It was designed to meet the needs of infants and young children, she said.

Whipple said using the childcare center for other programs is simply a case of changing needs for the School District. Whenever Seattle Public Schools leases out property, it reserves the right to take it back for its own use, she said.

Longo said Casa Maria was not recognized as an equal to other School District learning partnerships on printouts at community meetings on the School District's new Student Assignment Plan. Her letter on the issue was ignored by Seattle Public Schools, she said.

In addition, Casa Maria raised $10,000 in order to improve the space at Ballard High School to make it suitable as a childcare and learning center, Longo said.

"Ballard High School was unjustly enriched by the nonprofit Montessori School contribution to improve the value of the building and the additional effort spent on developing the Lab School curriculum for student participation," she said.

Longo is encouraging members of the community to contact the Seattle School Board and ask them to allocate space to both Casa Maria and the special education programs using portable classrooms if needed.

"We don't have the room for it," Whipple said. "Bottom line: we just do not."

She said the School District is already being creative in handling space constraints, turning offices into classrooms, for example. Space will be at even more of a premium because the new Student Assignment Plan will increase the enrollment at Ballard High School, she said.

"Our first priority has to be our own students," Whipple said.

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