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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

When Laura Erickson moved to Lincoln with her husband, Adam, five years ago, she was working on her doctoral dissertation in medieval history.

That’s been put on hold for other learning — about insects and Antarctica, tying shoes, puzzles, South America and U.S. history, or whatever ignites the passions of 12 young students at Bluestem Montessori.

Erickson is executive director of the small school that opened this fall — Lincoln’s only nonreligious private school, operating out of leased space at the Unitarian Church, 6300 A St.

A strong supporter of public education, Erickson realized there was no secular alternative for kids for whom a traditional school setting wasn’t a good fit.

“If kids are not thriving, there really wasn’t another place,” she said. “We know not all kids learn the same way, so it seems to me there should be other options when your kids aren’t doing as well as they should be or if things are not going well in a traditional setting.”

She’s now being trained in the Montessori method at the Mid-America Montessori Teacher Training Institute in Omaha and she shares teaching duties with Lookkaew Mongkonrat Parks, who has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from a Bangkok university and a doctorate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Among the school’s 12 students are the Ericksons' two daughters, Eleanor, 9, and Elizabeth, 6. They had been attending Prescott Elementary School and Erickson said she loved all the teachers, but felt her kids were better-suited to the more-individualized education that’s a hallmark of Montessori programs.

Erickson, who earned her bachelor's degree from Hastings College and went on to earn a master's at the University of Washington, got her start with a Montessori education.

“The Montessori philosophy is so much more individualized, so children really work at their own pace on things that interest them,” she said. “If a kid is ahead or behind their peers, it’s just not an issue.”

The Montessori style is child-led and students are grouped in three-year age increments, which allows older children to help younger children.

Prairie Hill Learning Center near Roca is another Montessori elementary school, and there are two elementary programs in Omaha. Montessori also runs preschools, including two in Lincoln offering kindergarten.

Prairie Hill and the Omaha schools, as well as the Montessori kindergarten classes in Lincoln, are nonpublic schools approved by the Nebraska Department of Education.

Bluestem, whose name comes from the state grass, is now operating as a home school for children in grades kindergarten-3. Erickson hopes to expand that each year until it has classes through sixth grade and eventually apply to be an approved nonpublic school.

State education officials said that’s a common way for new schools to start and establish their enrollment before seeking state approval.

Bluestem Montessori opened as Nebraska is knee-deep in a debate about charter schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits for nonpublic schools, though Erickson said as a home school those would not likely apply to Bluestem.

She hopes to create a scholarship program once the school is more established.

“In the long run, I would hate to ever be a school that took money from public education, because I think public education is so, so important to our community. We’re just trying to offer another avenue to education to our community.”

Chickens lay and dogs lie

If you’re a Nebraska student, chances are you can correctly use the words “to,” “too” and “two.”

NoRedInk, an online, adaptive-learning platform for teaching grammar, usage, mechanics and style, analyzed answers of 3 million students who took diagnostic evaluations before using the platform in 2017.

Nebraska students performed fifth-best overall at grammar and writing skills, with an error rate of 36 percent.

The business analyzed U.S. students in grades 5-12 and found the biggest usage conundrum is nailing down the difference between lay and lie. The top-10 usage issues also included difficulty knowing the difference between discreet and discrete, fewer and less, among and between.

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The biggest writing problem: eliminating wordiness.

Fairly disturbing: Just 30 percent of students nationwide could identify the subject of a sentence.

Just 23 percent of Nebraska students can cite evidence correctly, though they did better (65 percent) recognizing active and passive voice.

As for lay and lie, a Lincoln Journal Star editor once offered this tip: Chickens lay; dogs lie. She made her point by lying on the floor in front of the offending reporter (not me, but it obviously made an impression).

Some things never change

Over the years, in the great school calendar debates (and those used to happen pretty regularly), winter break has never been much of a sticking point in Lincoln Public Schools.

In fact, it hasn't changed much in the last century.

Case in point: In 2003-04, winter break began on Dec. 20 (a Saturday) and ended Jan. 4 (a Sunday). It lasted 10 weekdays and both Christmas and New Year’s Day fell on Thursdays.

That's the exact same dates as winter break 101 years earlier, during the 1902-03 school year, when the 10-weekday break encompassed Christmas and New Year’s Day that both fell on a Thursday.

That comes from LPS administrator John Neal, who discovered it when providing context on winter breaks for a recent story. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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