Montessori school's disciplinary practice raises concern

dgoodhue@keysreporter.comNovember 14, 2013 

Board members of a Tavernier charter Montessori school plan to meet Monday to discuss a discipline policy that has some parents concerned.

Samuel Maher, a parent of an Ocean Studies Charter School first-grader, complained to the school's board of directors in October about a form of punishment where students must walk in a circle or back and forth for a period of time for what he calls minor classroom behavioral infractions.

"We really believe in the school, we really believe in the principal, and I support the board, but I can't support this program. They have really messed up," Maher said this week.

Maher is also upset the school didn't inform parents about the discipline practice.

"A lot of board members were surprised," he said. "They didn't know what was going on." Maher said he found out about the practice only after his son told him.

"My kid was bellyaching about going to school. He academically does very well," Maher said. "But we were uncomfortable with him being excluded and made to lose his free play for minor infractions."

These infractions, Maher said, include talking in class and not sitting down during "circle time."

Sue Woltanski, an Ocean Studies board member, said she and her four colleagues have asked "for the administration and staff to develop a comprehensive policy for behavior management in the school."

She said the staff will provide the board with the policy at the Nov. 18 meeting at the school, on the ocean side of mile marker 92.3, starting at 6 p.m.

Woltanski said as of now, the school has no written policy about "making children go out and walk circles." Some teachers this year have given misbehaving students the option of journaling about appropriate behavior "or doing this walking around thing."

"Many children, including my son, choose walking around," Woltanski said.

Both punishments are meted out during recess, which Maher said is unfair. He said having a child walk back and forth or in circles while his or her classmates are playing during recess "creates a lot of self esteem issues."

Although it is not an official discipline policy, Woltanski said no teacher she has spoken with feels making children walk around "is an egregious form of punishment because the child is given a choice."

In fact, Woltanski said she believes there is merit behind using exercise as discipline rather than making students perform some mundane scholastic routine.

"If the consequence is academic, that makes academics seem like punishment," she said. But Maher says the practice is uselessly punitive.

"The consequences make no difference if they are not immediate. The kids have no idea. It's just punishment," Maher said.

The Ocean Studies Charter School began in 2011. It is the only school in the Keys that bases its curriculum specifically on marine sciences. In the three years since opening, its enrollment has doubled to more than 72 students. Its charter allows for up to 116 students. The school serves children in the first- to third-grade age group.

The school is a public charter school, meaning it is funded with taxpayer dollars but is run by a private board of directors.

Woltanski said she has not heard from any other parents about the walking punishment except Maher. But Maher said he has discussed the issue with several parents who share his concern.

"A lot of people didn't know what was going on and they are really" angry, Maher said. "It's been going on since the beginning of the school year."

Woltanski is also upset Maher took the issue to the press before Monday's meeting. "Honestly, I don't think it's fair," she said.

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