One of the newest, biggest buildings in Carbondale is a school. Administrators, teachers and parents at Ross Montessori have been working for years to make the new location a reality. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher took a tour of the new building, which is slated to open in a matter of months.
Tricia Williams is over the moon about this construction site. She’s Development Director for the school. We’re picking our way across the front side of the property, which is right off Highway 133 near town. “This side of the building gets to look at [Mount] Sopris,” she beams. “We actually at one point during the design phase turned the building around, so that the more common areas get to look at [Mount] Sopris,” Williams laughs. “And that way the classrooms don’t have to fight over it."
Ross Montessori started building the new school this past spring. It’s costing at least six and a half million dollars. The majority of that is funded by a USDA rural development loan. Officials used fundraising and state grant money to purchase the land last year, for more than a million dollars.
The Montessori education method is named after Italian physician and founder Maria Montessori. It's been around for a hundred or so years, and the Ross Montessori school in Carbondale started ten years ago. After limping along in mobile homes in the industrial side of town, this is about as shiny and new and dreamy as a new school can get. The outer shell of the building is done, so construction crews are working on concrete siding a European design that looks exactly like wood.
Inside, electricians are putting in wiring, and there’s a backhoe digging outside. "These are kindergarten classrooms,” explains Williams. “So the most important part of a Montessori classroom is the actual classroom space…. each classroom is fairly self-contained. They have sinks and they’ve got their own storage. And that way the teacher and the students can set up the workflow. Because we don’t have chairs and desks, we have a big open space that’s filled with works and children can work at a table if they want, on the floor, whatever’s comfortable for them, so that they are not distracted by anything, [just] focused on the work.”
By “works,” Williams means projects, usually hands-on, with blocks, beads, or other elements. The goal is to have, at most, two dozen students in a classroom. “Because each student has a workplace that is customized to them, they’re all not doing the same thing at the same time,” continues Williams. “So this group of students might be working on the beads, and doing math with the teacher. But then you’ve got 10 or 20 other students sitting around and doing their own work. And it might be a language lesson, it might be math."
Williams only learned about Montessori in recent years, but she’s just kind of the enthusiastic cheerleader you want, to raise millions of dollars for a school like this one. “There’s three hours in the morning in students in the Montessori classroom are just doing their work,” she beams again. “It’s quiet, it’s a wonderful thing to see. Just the busyness that’s going on and the hum in the room.”
There’s high demand in the mid Roaring Fork Valley for that kind of classroom experience. The waitlist for the charter school is so long the federal government approved expanding its loan, so more classrooms can be built right away. In the next phase, the school will add a gym and other common areas.
And there are the more unglamorous, but necessary aspects of a project like this one. Like the new parking lot out front, and a new road called “Lewie’s lane,” and named after a local descendent of the longtime Thompson family. Williams’ work is not over yet. “We are still fundraising, so we can eventually get asphalt poured in here. And we’re getting solar panels.” So she’s again rallying families and locals to help match a fund that will pay for those and other finishing touches in time for the new Ross Montessori school to open in January.