IDAHO FALLS — The oldest Montessori school in Idaho Falls is preparing to enter its 30th year of teaching students.
When Snake River Montessori School first opened in 1989, it was located in the basement of First Congregational Church and only taught preschool and kindergarten. Every Monday morning, co-founders Jill Schurman and Barbara Turner, along with a handful of aides and parents, would spend two hours moving the classroom supplies out of a back room and setting them up for the school week. Every Friday they cleaned the basement and packed everything away again.
Schurman had worked at Montessori schools in Atlanta and Pittsburgh before coming to Idaho and used the same blueprint for opening a school here that she used in Atlanta — rent out a church basement at first, convince families that the school is worth investing in and use their passion and commitment to the program to eventually afford a stand-alone building.
“They become so invested once they saw how well their children were doing. It was an amazing feeling to see that happen here,” Schurman said.
The main focus of the Montessori school is not on short, discrete classes and lengthy homework. Classes are loose blocks of time where students can learn more or less at their own pace through projects and activities. Students are divided into mixed age groups (3 to 6 years old, first through third grade and fourth through sixth grade) to help them teach each other and socialize.
The ideas for the school structure comes from Maria Montessori, an Italian teacher and physician who began opening schools that gave hands-on lessons to poor children in the early 1900s. Montessori teachers have to be specially trained and certified to adapt to the system.
Snake River is one of four schools in Idaho that belongs to the American Montessori Society. Two other Montessori schools have opened near Idaho Falls over the last 15 years but neither Lighthouse Montessori nor Monticello is a member of the national society.
Hollie Popa taught at a Montessori school in Bozeman, Mont., before coming to Idaho Falls. Now the head of school at Snake River, Popa said that the Montessori method of teaching is all about giving students freedom to learn at their own pace and in ways that encourage their interests.
“Children love learning. We want to make everything inviting for them so they can figure it out for themselves,” Popa said.
It took six years before Snake River grew enough to afford its own location in town. The school first moved to a small metal shack on 1st Street in 1995, followed in 1999 by the construction of a larger log building near the same lot. By that time the school was teaching up to third grade and saw more than 60 students each year.
“It was one massive building with two rooms and no doors between them. You could hear the other class all the time,” Schurman said.
Parent fundraising played a large role in affording the new location, as did construction help from Matt Morgan at Morgan Construction, who had kids enrolled in the school.
Joy Rempe first heard about the school while it was located in the metal building. As she considered sending her oldest daughter in preschool there, she dropped in on one of Schurman’s classes to see how the students her age were doing.
“She had a bunch of preschoolers in a circle behaving themselves, raising their hands and telling what they wanted to share. It was such a nice group of kids,” Rempe said.
Rempe was won over. She brought her daughter in later that spring for an interview with the school and enrolled her soon after. Over the years, Rempe’s younger daughter would also join Snake River, and she was on the school board when the school moved to its current location in 2000. That building, located at 2970 E. 1st Street, was expanded again in 2003 as the school added classes up to sixth grade.
Ninety students are enrolled at the school for the upcoming year. The school now boasts a staff of four teachers and multiple aides who work alongside Schurman and Popa, more than double the number of teachers 30 years ago.
The cost of attending the private elementary school reaches up to $730 per month for some families. Snake River offers tuition assistance to families after their first year at the school, which Schurman said was a policy that made sure the money went to children who would continue attending.
“Parents don’t always understand the depth of what a Montessori school is and how much peer-to-peer learning goes on,” Schurman said.
Some of the cost is also tied into extended hours during the school year, which allow students to stay in the building until their parents get off work, and summer classes. The summer programs are even more free-ranging than the official Montessori lessons, with most of the time set aside for reading and week-long projects.
The transfer from the Montessori system to public education can be jarring for students used to open classrooms and minimal testing. Popa said the school spends the last few weeks with the sixth-graders preparing for the transfer by simulating those details of middle school. She said that students tend to struggle more with the social jump, going from such a small mixed-age class to a larger setting.
“They know how to learn, even if they don’t know the exact content of the class already. It makes it easier for them to play the social game in a larger pond,” Popa said.
Both of Rempe’s daughters have graduated from high school by now, and she has not been on the board for over a decade. She said that her kids might have done as well in a public elementary school but that the community of parents and the speed of learning made it easier to keep them enrolled through sixth grade.