The Canutillo Independent School District will launch a prekindergarten Montessori program later this month, making it the first district in the county to offer a public Montessori option.

Canutillo’s announcement comes as neighboring El Paso Independent School District is also working to open a Montessori program by next school year.

“We’re always here to provide choices and to lead in our educational opportunities for our kids in our communities,” Superintendent Pedro Galaviz said Wednesday at a press conference that coincided with Maria Montessori’s 152nd birthday.

Montessori created the child-centered education method that focuses on self-directed, hands-on learning in the early 1900s. It has grown in popularity in recent decades, with more public school districts opening their own Montessori schools.

Texas is one of the states with the most public Montessori schools, according to the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. Districts such as Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston and Austin all offer Montessori, which until now, has only been available at El Paso private schools.

Canutillo ISD is starting small — its pre-K3 Montessori program will be open to only 11 students, a number that could increase slightly depending on interest, said Jesica Arellano, executive director of curriculum and instruction. The free, dual-language program will be housed at Gonzalo & Sofia Garcia Elementary School. Entrance will be by interview. Though open to any 3-year-old, priority will be given to those living within the district’s boundaries.

The program officially starts Sept. 19.

Canutillo ISD Superintendent Pedro Galaviz offers cake to pre-K students at Garcia Elementary in celebration of Maria Montessori’s 152nd birthday on Wednesday, Aug. 31. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Montessori classrooms are mixed-age, and over the next few school years, Canutillo’s program will expand to include 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Eventually, Arellano envisions it will have classrooms of older elementary-aged students.

“We do want to eventually have a Montessori at every elementary campus,” she said.

In Texas, public Montessori students are taught the same grade-level standards as those in a traditional public school classroom, and they take the same standardized tests.

Montessori teachers, who are known as “guides,” must be Montessori certified through an accredited training center. That training can take between one to two years.

Because most Montessori schools are private, it can be a challenge for public schools to find teachers who are both Montessori and Texas certified. Canutillo is using its state District of Innovation status to hire teachers who aren’t state certified. This status allows districts to opt out of certain state requirements regarding class size, the school calendar and teacher certification, which is intended to give them more local control over instruction.

Canutillo’s first two Montessori hires — Patricia Vasquez and Lorena Gutierrez-Quiroz — are coming from the private sector.

Patricia Vasquez, left, and Lorena Gutierrez will be the bilingual certified Montessori “guides” at Garcia Elementary, where they will teach the first cohort of pre-K students. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In addition to hiring teachers from outside the district, Canutillo will cover the certification costs for interested district teachers. Montessori teachers, regardless of state certification, will be on the same pay scale as other teachers.

“This transition from private to public is a huge opportunity for the entire city of El Paso,” said Vasquez, who has taught at Montessori schools in both Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. “This is history for the Montessori movement and for El Paso.”

Canutillo ISD will have an orientation for parents who want to learn more about and sign up for its pre-K3 dual language Montessori program on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 5 p.m. at Garcia Elementary, 6550 Westside Drive. For more information, contact the school at 915-877-1200 or email ges@canutillo-isd.org.

To qualify for the program, students must be 3 years old as of Sept. 1, be potty-trained, have basic communication skills and be able to dress themselves independently.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with...