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Three to choose

A Holliston elementary school offers contrasting educational styles, giving students, parents a chance to buck the teach-to-MCAS temptation

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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In the age of MCAS, one Holliston school regularly risks a few test points for the sake of innovation.

When children enter kindergarten at Sam Placentino Elementary, their parents must choose among three programs: French immersion, Montessori, or traditional. Having two choices is unusual in Massachusetts public schools; Holliston’s three options may be unique.

But there is a risk. The school district tells parents that if they choose a nontraditional program, they might see lower MCAS scores when their children are in the early grades, according to Superintendent Bradford Jackson.

“Communities that value innovation - there’s also a little rebellious nature in those types of communities, and I think frankly that Holliston is a community that understands that there’s a temporary cost to this type of choice,’’ said Jackson.

“We are very clear to parents when they choose these programs that their children’s third- and fourth- and maybe fifth-grade MCAS scores will be, on average, below where kids in traditional programs are,’’ he continued. “By the time they reach middle school all those issues have resolved themselves.’’

The majority of Placentino’s 704 students are in the traditional program, which emphasizes reading and writing in a familiar structure. But 133 receive their daily classroom instruction in French, while another 83 are enrolled in the Montessori program, which stresses hands-on learning and lets students go at their own pace. Both nontraditional programs have waiting lists this year.

“All the skills she’s learned, to read and write in French, are transferring over naturally,’’ said Michelle Hastings, whose second-grade daughter is in French immersion program.

“I think Montessori gives them a confidence about themselves,’’ said Pamela PinterParsons, who has had two children in Holliston’s program.

Jackson said the school system does not break down MCAS results by program because he doesn’t want to give the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System too much weight as a measure of performance. But he said he knows anecdotally that while students in Montessori and French immersion lag some in the early grades, they rebound by high school.

This spring, Holliston High School had a strong showing on the 10th-grade MCAS exams, with 94 percent of its students rating as advanced or proficient in English, 99 percent following suit in math, and 93 percent in science and technology.

“This is the sort of innovation that you hope doesn’t get squelched by a focus on standards,’’ said Jill Norton, executive director of the Cambridge-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, which she described as pro-MCAS. “Having a level of accountability shouldn’t take away from a teacher’s ability to innovate and continue to offer creative programs for kids - that’s the hope.’’

Montessori is a teaching method developed by Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori 100 year ago. It focuses on each child as an individual and emphasizes hands-on-learning materials that engage the senses, according to Karla Garvin, the Holliston district’s Montessori program specialist. The program has been in the town’s public schools for 26 years.

“There is a lot of freedom and independence and choice in Montessori education,’’ said Garvin. “Everyone’s doing their own thing.’’

That was evident on a recent morning in a Placentino Montessori classroom for children ages 3 to 6. Several children were working on a lesson that involved coloring, cutting, and then pasting in order the stages of a caterpillar’s life as it becomes a butterfly. Elsewhere in the room, a couple of children were looking at books, one was using binoculars to look at the bird feeder outside the classroom window, and another was drawing a castle on a chalkboard.

Part of the Montessori philosophy is for children to help one another. Placentino has classrooms combining children ages 3 to 6, and other classrooms for children ages 6 to 8, with third-graders in their own classroom. Fourth-graders finish the Montessori program at Miller Elementary School.

PinterParsons has a fifth-grade daughter who just finished Montessori and a 7-year-old son enrolled now. The experience has been so good that PinterParsons started a local cable television show, “The Magic of Montessori,’’ to educate the community about the program.

Perhaps the most telling byproduct has been the love of learning she sees in her daughter, Abigail, who writes and illustrates books with her Montessori friends for fun.

“Now the whole world is a learning experience,’’ PinterParsons said. “That to me is the most exciting part.’’

Holliston’s 30-year-old French immersion program has enjoyed consistent popularity, but Montessori enrollments were on the decline when Jackson became superintendent five years ago, he said.

“We basically decided to recommit ourselves to our three programs and essentially gave ourselves permission to have some of our MCAS scores lag a little behind, with the understanding that they would eventually catch up.’’

Jackson said any shortfall on MCAS among Montessori students comes from the focus on letting them go at their own pace and explore their interests.

“If a student is fascinated by a particular math concept, they may study that to a far greater depth than someone in a traditional classroom would, but it’s sometimes done at the expense of other material,’’ he said.

Children in French immersion initially get lower MCAS scores because they don’t start reading in English until third grade. They learn to read and write first in French, with 100 percent immersion in kindergarten through second grade.

“We discourage parents from reading to their children or trying to teach their children to read in English,’’ said Linda Weene, Placentino’s principal.

The idea is that all reading and writing skills learned in French will transfer to English, but there might be some lag time.

The reward is that children are totally fluent in French by second grade, said Weene. After that, they can enroll in partial immersion in grades 3 through 5, and choose a daily French class in grades 6 through 8. Studies can continue in high school.

Michelle Hastings was one of Holliston’s first French immersion students in the late 1970s. Although she stopped taking French when she got to high school, she said, she can still speak it. “When you learn it at such a young age, it stays with you,’’ she said.

That was one of the reasons she decided to enroll her daughter, Campbell, now in second grade, in the program.

Weene said all three programs at Placentino are strong, and in most cases a child can be successful in any of them because the same curriculum is taught - just via different methods.

“Our most important job is teaching children how to read.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article in the Oct. 4 Globe West (“Three to Choose’’) incorrectly reported that third- and fourth-graders in Holliston’s Montessori program have separate classrooms. The children are grouped together at the Miller Elementary School.