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Voices: So, you want to start a school…

She knows people might think she’s crazy, but teacher Karen Farquharson wanted to start a school that matched her vision for bilingual education. And guess what? She did it.

About three years ago a few fellow teachers and I used to sit around at lunch and talk about starting a school. We were teaching in a dual language Montessori program in Northwest Denver and knew we’d hit upon a powerful educational model. Most people don’t think of starting their own school. Or, if they do, that’s about how far they get. Not many people are actually crazy enough to follow through. Luckily for our future students, I am one of the crazy ones.

Photo of students from the Montessori del Mundo website
Photo of students from the Montessori del Mundo website

We decided to name our school Montessori del Mundo. One thing unique to MdM was our commitment to locate in Aurora. I must admit to being biased towards Aurora. My husband and I have lived here for the past four years and I began my teaching career in APS. Having taught in the district I knew that it was a wonderful community with great kids and amazing families, and living here I knew that there were no public Montessori and no dual language options. I was quite surprised, however, to find that people were warning me not to apply in Aurora.

Remember when I said I was crazy? I’m also stubborn. So I made an appointment with the APS charter school liaison. When I arrived I was prepared to be dismissed. I’d been told that APS wasn’t interested in charters, that no school had applied in the past six years, that every school had been rejected and had to appeal to the state, that Superintendent John Barry a.k.a. “The General” was guarding the district borders against charter schools and there was no hope of getting in.

Imagine my delight to find that not only was I meeting with Efrén Ortiz, the charter school liaison, but also with Lisa Escárcega, the district accountability officer, and William Stuart, the deputy superintendent. Over the course of the next hour I explained our school plan and intentions and got valuable feedback from the district staff regarding the current needs in the district and struggles of past charter applicants and dual language schools in Aurora. Escárcega and Stuart were thoughtful, professional and encouraging about our model.

After a summer of writing, editing, student recruiting, meeting with community members and building our team, the application due date finally arrived. We dropped off our 10 copies with Efrén at the district office and crossed our fingers that our hard work would pay off.

With the charter submitted to the district staff, it was time to reach out to the school board. I’d heard many things about the APS school board: that they were anti-charter, that they had never voted for a charter before, that they’d be difficult to approach. This was not at all my experience. By the time our charter was voted on I’d had the opportunity to speak with six of seven of the APS board members. Three of them had visited dual language Montessori classrooms to see the model and several had offered specific advice, support or guidance about the needs of the district and how our school could help fill them. I found each board member I spoke with to be professional, open-minded and above all passionately concerned about Aurora kids.

On Nov. 27 the APS board voted unanimously to approve Montessori del Mundo as the seventh charter school to locate in Aurora Public Schools.

I am eternally grateful to everyone who has helped us through this process – to Get Smart Schools, the Colorado League of Charter Schools and to all the parents and community members who’ve supported us. We are excited to work with a district that is full of so many enthusiastic, intelligent, passionate educators and leaders from John Barry to Lisa Escárcega to the APS board members.

So if you’re sitting around the lunch table chatting with your colleagues about opening a school, you should know that is a lot of hard work and a lot of sleepless nights. But if you’re a little bit crazy, if you have a great model, if you’ve got a team and some support, and you can find a district where you fill a need, you just might be able to start a great school.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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