Students and parents are speaking out against Innovation Montessori’s plans to merge its middle school program with its high school campus.
Innovation Montessori moved its charter high school to a new, separate campus on East Silver Star Road in August 2022, with the original Innovation Montessori High School charter draft setting a cap at 800 students.
After having to pivot during the pandemic, in July 2022, school officials said the school would start with 170 students with a student capacity of 288 — 72 planned for each grade level.
MIDDLE SCHOOL MERGE
Innovation Executive Director Patrice Cherico said the merger was discussed with the board at a working session in January.
Four weeks ago, the school announced the board voted to merge the middle school program with the high school campus.
Cherico said the merger could benefit students in both programs.
“It was always our intent to staff and support our middle school program at our North Lakewood campus alongside our high school,” she said. “Our plans had to change when construction costs accelerated during the pandemic. Our original plan was always to have a principal over middle and high, and a principal over primary and elementary. It was just November 2021 that we realized we were being priced out of building our high school on that property. While we had to face the possibility of losing our high school program entirely at that point in time, our board and administration worked hard to keep the high school moving forward, ultimately purchasing the Silver Star building just last spring.
“With this new reality, we now need to think about the future of the program and what is in its best interests,” she said. “I strongly believe that, with our student body on two separate campuses now, the most logical thing to do is to create a unique space for our adolescents.”
Cherico said she believes this is the logical move from two perspectives: pedagogically and operationally.
“We are fully aware that the timeline seemed short and fast, but we had to wait for the decision from OCPS,” Cherico said. “And though the merge would not happen until 2024-25, it had to be voted on in March … for administration to allocate spaces correctly for 2023-24 in order to support the direction for 2024-25. We asked for the community to give us trust and time to work out the details.”
IMHS Principal Jared Stewart sent a message to parents March 24 about the merger: “Following the merger (consolidation of our two charter contracts with OCPS) of our K-8 and high school charters — which was approved at February’s OCPS board meeting — at Wednesday night’s board meeting, our board voted to consolidate our middle and high school programs.”
Stewart then sent a newsletter to parents saying he met with students to “collect their thoughts on how to make the transition as smooth as possible.”
“While this change will certainly create challenges, I was pleased to hear students share their thoughts on how we can make the transition happen in a way that supports all students at all grade levels,” Stewart wrote. “Concerns and ideas were shared, and I fielded a lot of questions. Overall, I believe the discussions were productive and gave students an opportunity to be heard.”
However, students and parents claim the school never asked for their input.
Cherico said although the school is in support of the student voice, it also knows “adolescents don’t always have all the facts or the full perspective, which is exactly why we don’t include them in operational decisions.
“Running a school sometimes calls on us to make unpopular decisions in the school’s best interest,” she said. “At these times, we hope that the trust and goodwill we have grown with our community will help us through. Clearly, not everyone is there with us just yet.”
At a board meeting Tuesday, May 2, Innovation students spoke out against the decision to merge the programs.
One student said she felt “betrayed by the administration and the board of directors.”
“This has been very stressful for the high-schoolers who had no warning about this change and weren’t allowed to have a voice in this decision,” the student said. “We are not happy with this decision, and many have been silenced when they’ve tried to speak up.”
The student referenced a survey conducted by other students where 136 out of the 164 surveyed stated they were against the merger. Out of 24 neutral students, a large number said they voted neutral, because “they don’t care because they’re leaving this school anyway.”
The students also created a hand-signed petition against the merger signed by 125 out of 134 students. Additionally, students have created an online petition called “Save Our Schools.”
Another student asked the school for transparency and honesty.
“Our trust — the student body, the teachers, even the parents — has been shattered,” he said. “Not just that, there is an air of paranoia within the entire school … truly a whole atmosphere of not knowing what’s going on. … We simply ask: Be transparent and have empathy.”
Board President Stacey Williams asked the board to consider the communications shared but also to consider the long-term focus.
“We cannot make decisions in this role based on one perspective,” she said. “We do need to consider the whole health of this school and what would provide the best opportunity for students…”
Board member Marissa Caravelis said she based her decision to support the merger on the school’s mission.
“Through the discussion that we had, we felt like we could do better for adolescents,” she said. “If we feel like we can do better to reach our mission, then this is the right thing to do.”
After much discussion by the board, the board also heard public comment from staff and parents.
“This would have avoided two months of stress from top to bottom in our school community,” parent Alain Dawson said of the discussion. “A lot of us have gotten information that we’ve been dying to have and have been asking for, and it just has not been presented in a way that we could understand and put together. We may not all be happy about it — I’m sure you guys aren’t all happy about it — but we understand where you’re coming from. ... Without information you have speculation, and that’s what’s been going on.”
SHOW OF SUPPORT
Although few spoke in support of the merger at the meeting, Orange Observer received more than 15 emails from staff members at Innovation in the days following the board meeting speaking of positive experiences with the school.
Teacher Natalie Zanini said the administration team goes out of its way to ensure the teachers are supported and there is an open-door policy.
“The recent decision to bring middle school to the other campus is one I support, because I truly believed, based on my training and knowledge of Montessori, that this is the best way to foster an authentic program,” she said. “Ever since this change has been announced, the amount of disinformation that has been thrown around is ridiculous. People have perpetuated false information. What is known to be true is that the choices made by the IMO administration have gotten us this far and have built something beautiful. Now is not the time to stop believing in those who we have trusted this much.”
Parent and staff member Arielle Pandolph-Schmidt said although she was unprepared for the decision to merge the middle school with the high school — especially because her daughter will be in the first class affected — she believes parents have gone too far.
“The administration and board of Innovation Montessori have always led the school thoughtfully, purposefully and respectfully,” she said. “I was more disappointed in the disrespect this group of parents showed toward the administration and the school than the decisions the school made. They allowed their emotions — and dare I say ‘entitlement’ — to overrun their logical minds and neglected to consider that professional school administrators might really know more about running a school than they do.”
To improve open communication in the future, the board discussed starting a School Advisory Council again, as well as a student committee and a communication committee.
Cherico said the board’s decision is to continue moving forward.
“As a board, we affirm our commitment to the direction of merging middle school and high school, while aligning enrollment numbers with the intent that we will not need a second lottery at any grade,” the board wrote in a prepared statement composed at the end of the meeting.
Cherico said she believes school culture is not one meeting and done — it’s a collective daily effort.
“We are far from perfect, and we understand that we will always have work to do and ways to get better, but we are very intentional about the culture of our work community,” she said. “It’s something that is not taken for granted and something that we remind staff that we are all responsible for every day. … We work toward a culture where clear is kind. We circle back and follow up if we’re not content with how a conversation went, and we hold each other and ourselves to account. Being brave isn’t easy, we know, but we owe it to each other to speak our peace.”