School tour and information session

What: A tour of Desert Sky Montessori and information about the school

When: 10-11 a.m. Saturday

Where: 150 NE Bend River Mall Suite 260, Bend

Why: Because the charter school is brand new, staff is offering information and answering questions for those interested in Montessori. Those looking to enroll their children in the school can visit dsmontessori.org/intent-to-enroll/ or email enroll@dsmontessori.org

When school begins next month, Central Oregon will have its first Montessori school with free tuition.

As is the case for many charter schools in Oregon, it was no small task getting Desert Sky Montessori Charter School approved and off the ground. It will open with kindergarten through third-grade classes Sept. 6 in Bend.

In Oregon, charter schools are privately run, publicly funded and sponsored by a local school district or the state. Desert Sky Montessori submitted its charter application to Bend-La Pine Schools in fall 2015, but the school board deemed the application incomplete and voted not to approve the plans to open the school. The charter school made adjustments to its plan, including by significantly reducing the number of students for the first year, before getting approved in 2016.

When Desert Sky opens next month, it will have 101 students. The school has set its cap at 108 students — it is looking to accept a few more, plus it will offer a waiting list.

Bend has a few private Montessori preschools, and High Desert Montessori, a private school serving students 2-12, opened in fall 2016 in Redmond. High Desert Montessori’s founder had previously been working on charter applications with the group supporting Desert Sky Montessori, but when it became clear Desert Sky Montessori wouldn’t be approved as a charter in time to start school last fall, she decided to open a private school.

In addition to making sure a school is appropriately equipped to teach students and has a stable financial plan, Bend-La Pine Schools aims to approve charters that will offer something different than its existing schools do, according to Lora Nordquist, the district’s assistant superintendent.

Montessori schools are unlike traditional ones in a few ways: There are mixed-age classrooms; there is more independence for students to choose how long they work on a subject or project; students are encouraged to follow what they’re passionate about; students have three hours per day to choose independent work, according to Jodie Borgia, head of school.

In fall 2015, Desert Sky hoped to open with 400 students in first through eighth grades. At that time, 400 students was nearly 2 percent of the district’s total enrollment.

Desert Sky’s predicted size was part of the reason the Bend-La Pine School Board voted not to approve the charter school, because it would potentially move so many students from their neighborhood schools.

Desert Sky Montessori’s initial application came in at the same time as another charter school application in Bend-La Pine Schools was being reviewed, for Bend International School, which opened in fall 2015. That proved trying for the school district, because it must meet a series of state-mandated deadlines for responding to charter school applications, and there aren’t special charter review staff responsible for this. Instead, it falls to administrators in various departments to check charter proposals.

After reviewing two charter school proposals in 2015, district staff said the process ate up staff time and wondered if there was a better way. As of this spring, Bend-La Pine made a few changes to its application process to ease the pressure on staff.

Now, applications are only accepted every other July. July tends to be a quieter month for staff, Nordquist said, and if charter applications come in at the same time, staff’s minds are already in that frame of mind.

The plan is for Desert Sky Montessori in Bend to add a new grade each school year up to eighth grade.

Having the school be tuition free opens up the Montessori method to “the whole of Bend,” Borgia said. Eventually, Desert Sky would also like to offer preschool, and for that, it would have to charge tuition.

Desert Sky secured its location in the Bend River Plaza, off of NE Third St. near the Bend River Promenade, on May 1, but the city didn’t grant the charter’s occupancy permit until Aug. 11. Before Desert Sky moved in, the space housed a restaurant, so changes were made to adapt it for school use, including changing the fire alarm system. The school also has a secure entry similar to several facilities in Bend-La Pine schools, where visitors have to be buzzed in and check in by presenting an ID.

Since getting the permit two weeks ago, Desert Sky hosted a weekend at its new space when families were encouraged to come help put together items such as furniture. Last week, with dining counters removed and small chairs around, the space was looking less like a spot in a shopping center and more like a school.

As a charter, the school will be funded by the state through Bend-La Pine Schools. Desert Sky will receive 80 percent of those funds from the state, and Bend-La Pine, as the charter school’s sponsor, will receive the other 20 percent, based on the agreement the two groups drew up, according to Julia Sutter, Desert Sky’s business director.

Ultimately, Desert Sky hopes to build its own school, which will take a capital campaign. The charter knows of a company that builds Montessori schools, then leases them to groups. Desert Sky has found that with 300 students enrolled, it could afford a lease for a new building. The charter’s lease, including for services in the plaza like garbage collection, is a little more than $11,000 per month, Sutter said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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