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New name, fresh start greets Detroit students, teachers

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit – — When Kathleen Keenmon heard that the Detroit Public Schools Community District was taking volunteers for its new Montessori program, she was all for it.

“Montessori? Sign me up!” said Keenmon, principal of Maybury Elementary School in southwest Detroit, who like teachers and staff across Michigan on Tuesday welcomed students back for the first day of the new school year.

Fourth-grader Treasure Wyatt, 9, looks for her name on the class list Tuesday morning at Maybury Elementary School in Detroit.

Keenmon had personal experience with the Montessori philosophy — which demands multi-age learning, small class sizes and allows even young students great discretion in how they spend their school days — when her daughter was enrolled in one years ago.

In the end, it got too expensive to maintain, and she moved her to a public school. But Keenmon, who has been principal at Maybury since March 1, realized that having the option at her public school would be attractive not only to existing parents who still had younger children in the system, but to parents looking for a new school.

April Cobb, 38, a psychology professor at Macomb Community College, was one such parent.

Cobb was looking for a school for her son Isaiah, who turns 4 in October. Hearing there was a Montessori program in the neighborhood was good. Knowing it was free was even better, Cobb said.

After talking it over with two district officials and attending a two-hour parent orientation in late August, Cobb was assured that Maybury’s program was the real deal. Some Montessori programs, Cobb and Keenmon said separately, use the name but fall short of the ideals.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, she dropped off Isaiah for his first day.

“Why can’t I go to school with my brothers?” Isaiah had asked, but minutes into the day, in a circle with his new friends, he was fully engaged in his new journey.

“I’m looking for my son to grow and be excited about learning, and to have great relationships with his teachers,” Cobb said.

His teacher, Anna Katopodis, made that part easy, kneeling so to be at eye level when she met Isaiah. She’d done the same at the parent orientation, April said, which she took as proof that her son was being left in good hands.

Katopodis and her assistant, Megan Coppiellie, are one part of an eight-classroom experiment in the Montessori system at the newly named district. Three others are at Spain Elementary and four more at Edison Elementary, said Steve Wasko, head of enrollment for the district. Some 150 students are enrolled between the eight classrooms. Seven of the eight are pre-K and kindergarten; the eighth is a first- and second-grade split.

The multiage nature of the program, officials said, is meant to turn even young students into leaders and mentors who shepherd their younger classmates along.

“Montessori is not just a curriculum,” Wasko said, “it’s a way of life.”

The Montessori offerings are the latest attempt by Michigan’s largest school district to make itself more attractive for parents at a time when charter schools, private schools and even suburban districts offering open enrollment are all trying to enroll students from Detroit and the money they represent.

Last year, Detroit Public Schools endured teacher sickouts over dilapidated district buildings in such disrepair that the city of Detroit got involved to inspect them and demand fixes. This year, with an expected 2 percent drop in enrollment from 2015-16, and with a new name, the district is hoping for a fresh start in the public eye.

DPS Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, right, and DPS EM Steven Rhodes address the media at Pulaski Elementary-Middle School students on the first day of school.

That fresh start doesn’t mean there’s no role for longtime contributors. Crossing guard Clara Dennings, 65, has been ensuring that children safely cross the intersection of Clark and Porter for more than 25 years.

Dennings said she’s been there on the hottest and coldest days and even fought through pneumonia to cross “her kids” safely. She’s done the job long enough to see the kids she crossed go on to college, come back, start families of their own, and tell their children that the woman who helps them arrive at school safely did the same when they were children.

“That’s the best part of my job,” Dennings said.