Making Montessori

Colorful maps and wooden blocks have lured some skeptical parents — but can free public Montessori survive in Detroit?

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
The Detroit Public Schools Community District is now offering Montessori to 150 kids in three schools.

When her son Carlton was born, Yolanda King started saving money for private school.

As a special education teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, King said she never imagined entrusting her child to the cash-strapped district that had so often let her down.

“DPS has definitely disappointed everyone,” she said. “Even before I had kids, it saddened me some of the things they did in the district.”

But four years later, King doesn’t even live in Detroit any more — she moved this year to a nearby suburb — but she drives Carlton into the city every day to attend a public school.

It’s not that Detroit schools have significantly improved. Despite a recent financial overhaul that resulted in a new name — the Detroit Public Schools Community District — and more money for classrooms, the district still faces severe academic and financial challenges.

But something happened this year to change King’s thinking about the district: It started offering Montessori instruction.

The popular educational method that allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms not only appealed to King as someone who sent her son to a private Montessori preschool. It also said something larger to her about the district’s relationship with its children and its future.

“It was an opportunity for DPS to prove to me as an employee that it really valued our students,” she said. “[It shows they’re] looking at different ways to educate, to kind of give something back instead of taking something away, as they typically unfortunately do.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Teacher Yolanda King enrolled son Carlton, 4, in a Detroit public schools when the district started offering Montessori instruction.“[It shows they’re] looking at different ways to educate, to kind of give something back instead of taking something away,” she said.
Montessori has long been associated with private schools, particularly preschools. But a growing share of the country’s 5,000 Montessori programs are now run by school districts or charter operators who see offering the new approach as a way to compete for families who have many options.

But as Montessori becomes more common in public schools, the programs often face steep challenges as they try to shoehorn a non-traditional approach into a traditional bureaucracy.

How can students learn at their own pace when there are state tests looming? Should some classrooms get new wooden blocks while others lack textbooks? And in Detroit, there’s an added question: Will the district be stable enough to sustain the new program in the years to come?

“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap,” King said. “But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”

*        *        *

Starting a public school Montessori program was even more complicated in Detroit than in other districts.

Here, it wasn’t just an issue of buying materials and inviting families to apply — because the school system had been in crisis for years.

As district officials last spring announced plans to roll out a Montessori program, they were also warning that mounting debts had gotten so severe that they soon would not be able to pay teachers.

That meant Montessori leaders were planning a new program without knowing for sure if there’d be money to pay for it. They couldn’t enroll any kids or start training any teachers.

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Detroit Montessori students worked together to build a labyrinth out of long, thin blocks.

So when state lawmakers finally signed off on a $617 million rescue package in June, district leaders had to act quickly.

They used $453,000 of the new state funds to launch Montessori for 150 kids in eight classrooms at three different schools, said Steve Wasko, the district’s executive director of enrollment.

That meant buying special Montessori materials like the wooden beads and blocks that are used to teach math and the sandpaper letters that are used to teach writing.

And it meant quickly training 16 teachers — eight lead teachers and eight associate teachers — in the Montessori method.

Ideally, Montessori teachers will train for a year or more, working with veteran educators before taking over their own classrooms. But that luxury is not available to many new Montessori programs because there are simply not enough veterans available to mentor new teachers, said Teresa Noble, the education director for South Carolina-based Institute for Guided Studies, which is training Detroit’s Montessori teachers.

Detroit’s tight timeline made things even more difficult. By the time the state funds arrived in July, the district had just two months to train teachers in a completely new way of teaching.

The Detroit teachers got four weeks of intensive instruction over the summer and are continuing to get training during the year from Noble and her team.

“There’s a challenge when you have teachers who are used to one methodology and they’re having to make a pretty 180 degree turn to what they’re used to, but these teachers seem to have embraced the philosophy,” Noble said. “We are providing them the same training that I would provide for a private school and … as much or maybe even more support.”

Wasko said the district made a point of choosing training programs, materials, and furnishings that were accredited or certified by national Montessori associations.

“It was critically important that this program be implemented with true fidelity to authentic Montessori methods and structures,” he said.

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Montessori classrooms use specialized materials like wooden blocks to teach math and other concepts.

The district had good reason to fast track the program — if it ever hopes to recover from the financial turmoil that has undermined its schools for years, it desperately needs new ways to attract families.

In a city with nearly equal numbers of district and charter schools and with state laws that allow kids to cross city borders to attend schools in neighboring districts, the district has been bleeding enrollment for years. That’s meant millions of dollars that used to flow to the district now go somewhere else.

The new Montessori program is one strategy the district is using to recruit families who might otherwise not choose to enroll in district schools. Other districts and school operators have had the same realization, launching several hundred new public school Montessori programs across the country in the last 10 years, said Keith Whitescarver, who heads the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

“Montessori has a good brand,” he said.

The brand has been fed by news reports about successful people who attended Montessori as well as mounting research on the benefits of using children’s natural curiosity to teach math, and reading as well as social, emotional and critical thinking skills.

Detroit’s Montessori program is still quite small. Spain Elementary School, where King’s son is enrolled in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, has three Montessori classrooms. The district also has one Montessori classroom at Maybury Elementary in Southwest Detroit and four at Edison Elementary in northwest Detroit. All of the classes serve 4- and 5-year-olds except one class at Edison that serves kids aged 6-9.

But despite its small size, the new program is already having an impact, said Marcus Davenport, Edison’s principal.

“It’s made our population more diverse,” he said.

While in the past, his school largely enrolled students who lived near the school, Montessori has brought in families who would otherwise have chosen charter schools or driven out to the suburbs for school.

“You have people coming from diverse backgrounds, coming from other areas of the city,” Davenport said. “It’s definitely been a major attraction for parents.”

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Edison Elementary School principal Marcus Davenport says Montessori has brought diversity to his Detroit school. “You have people coming from diverse backgrounds, coming from other areas of the city,” he said.

*      *       *

Most of the classrooms at Edison Elementary school look fairly typical, with desks lined up facing the teacher or pushed together into tables. But the students in Monica Fountain’s Montessori class are often sprawled out on the floor.

On a recent morning, Bryan Smith, 8, was putting the finishing touches on a mutli-colored map he drew of the United States, first tracing the states from a classroom map, then coloring each state with crayons and labeling them with a marker.

“I’ve been working on this for like eight days,” Bryan said. “I work on it every day.”

Across the room, his classmate, Alexandria Fortune, 7, was making a book about the solar system, drawing each planet with colored pencils, then writing basic details about each planet on the back. Other kids worked alone or in groups on reading, math or geography lessons.

The class has a broad range of students with different ability levels, said Nicola Turner, who runs the Montessori program for the district.

“Some have been retained, and some are extremely gifted,” she said.

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Detroit Montessori student Bryan Smith, 8, demonstrates how traced a classroom map to create his own, colorful map of the United States.

But with Montessori, Fountain said she could keep track of all of her students just by sitting back and watching them. The kids decide which activities they want to pursue and can freely roam their classroom to choose their daily tasks.

“I think the traditional [classroom] is more cookie-cooker and it’s supposed to fit every child but every child doesn’t fit a traditional classroom,” said Fountain, who taught for 19 years in eight DPS schools before joining the Montessori program. “Maybe their minds aren’t prepared yet for two-digit addition, but in a Montessori classroom, they’ll learn it in a different way with hands-on materials.”

Down the hall, in one of the early childhood classrooms, jazz music wafted out of a computer speaker while several children worked together laying long, narrow blocks in a pattern to build a labyrinth on the floor. One girl stood on a chair to put the final block atop a six-foot tower she was building.

“That teaches focus, concentration and early math skills,” teacher Simone Berry explained.

Class sizes in the Montessori program are lower than in a typical DPS classroom, with most of the classes capped at 20 children.

“We wanted to be very cognizant and conscious of the class sizes because it’s a new program, new students, new teachers,” Turner said. “We wanted to make sure that the teachers are able to have time in the classroom, to make sure they’re planning … It’s totally different from the way we usually teach.”

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Detroit Montessori director Nicola Turner says she’s committed to expanding Montessori in city public schools. “I’ve seen may programs come and go and I’d like to do this the right tway so it’s sustainable, so we can continue to to offer this many families,” she said.

For now, exactly how many Detroit students will get to experience Montessori instruction — and for how long — is unclear. Turner and Wasko say they’re working on expanding Montessori in all three existing schools, as well as talking with several other schools that have expressed interest in the program.

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather has said she’d like the program to eventually expand up through eighth grade or even into high school (where Montessori programs are relatively rare.) But with the district shifting to the control of a new school board next month, Meriweather doesn’t even know how much longer she’ll have a job.

The future of public school Montessori in Detroit will be decided over the next few months as part of larger conversation about money and priorities, Wasko said.

As of now, he said, “no definitive decisions have been made.”

The budget issues may be challenging. Each Montessori classroom has a lead teacher, an associate teacher and an aide who helps with lunch. That’s typical of the district’s pre-kindergarten programs, which get extra state and federal preschool funds.

But as this year’s Montessori students advance into higher grades, continuing the program would mean committing additional funds to pay for the extra staffing that Montessori classrooms require. Montessori classrooms generally need a specially trained lead teacher and a specially trained associate teacher to supervise children as they pursue their individualized learning programs. That might be a tough sell in a district where teaching shortages and budget shortfalls have swelled some class sizes to 30 or even 40 or more students.

Parents like King are aware that the program they love could suddenly disappear if the new school board doesn’t support it or if the district runs out of money again.

But King says this is a program that’s working — and she and other parents plan to fight for it.

“I think that if parents are loud enough and supportive enough of anything in DPS, it makes them more accountable to doing it,” King said. “Too many times, unfortunately, the parents don’t know their power.”

This story was produced in partnership with Metromode as part of a solutions journalism series on Metro Detroit’s regional issues, conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and guided by the Emerging Leaders Board.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Alexandria Fortune, 7, is making a book about the solar system in her Detroit Montessori classroom.

 

 

Playing around

These Detroit student activists wrote a play about the recent political turmoil in city schools. Watch it here.

Students in the 482Forward youth organizing collective perform a play about recent events in Detroit schools.

It’s been a nerve-wracking year in Detroit education, with state officials threatening to shutter two dozen city schools for years of low test scores, then backing off closures in favor of “partnership agreements.”

It’s all been very complicated, which is why a group of Detroit students wrote and performed a play about recent events in the city schools.

Called “Fork in the Road: Succeeding with us or failing without us,” the play was staged for an audience earlier this month at a church on the city’s east side. It was performed by the youth arm of 482Forward, a citywide education organizing network.

“It was their idea to do the play,” said Molly Sweeney, 482Forward’s director of organizing. The students involved wrote and performed the play, she said. “Given all the chaos in the city and everything being so confusing, this was a way of explaining the partnership agreements in a fun and interactive way.”

The play features a student who receives messages from the future via Snapchat that warns of dire consequences if students, parents and teachers are not involved in the work of turning around struggling schools.

Watch it here:

Fork in the road 1 from 482forward on Vimeo.

Church and state

The backdoor voucher? How a Detroit school created to lift up a ‘Christ-centered culture’ found a way to get public dollars

PHOTO: Allie Gross
At the Cornerstone charter recruitment gathering, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the phrase “Faith. Family. Culture.” — the private school’s trademark.

When prospective families arrived at Cornerstone Schools’ flagship campus on Nevada Street last month, they were greeted by a staff primed to woo and sell.

Folding chairs had been placed in the tidy front entrance of the northeast Detroit school, and one by one, administrators stood up to speak about the rich culture and strong curriculum that parents and children had come to know and love since the religious school opened in 1991.

“You know, when you come in the fall, we’re going to have a team of parents waiting for you to teach you how to do things because there’s a way to do things. Just like when you go to a church or join a new group,” said Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, to the crowd of potential families.

In March, Cornerstone announced that starting next year, its flagship private Christian school would stop providing primary and middle school classes. Instead, a charter, employing the same staff and using the same curriculum, would take over. Families from the religious school would help new families get to know the new school, Brockman explained. The words “Centers of Hope” glimmered in gold typeface above her as she spoke.

“They are going to make sure you understand the history and how they do things and that’s how we’re going to do it here,” she said. “You are going to have to get with our program.”

The history of Cornerstone is clear: The network of schools was started in 1991 by local attorney Clark Durant in response to a speech given by the city’s then-archbishop Adam Maida to the Detroit Economic Club. But how the families Brockman was addressing would get with the program — at least as it exists today — is less straightforward. Although the schools’ genesis was Christ-driven, nearly three decades after its creation, four of Cornerstone’s five schools are charters, which by law cannot teach religion.

And starting next year, the program is even more ambiguous. The last standing private, pre-K through 12th-grade Christian school, the one Brockman was presenting at, will be undergoing its own conversion.

Pinpointing where the religious school ended and the charter school began was difficult. Parents sitting in the room may have wondered: Am I at a meeting with Cornerstone Nevada, the flagship, independent, religious school? Or am I listening to a talk about Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy, the soon-to-open public charter school? The two entities couldn’t help but brush against each other.

Following Brockman’s presentation, parents were invited to come forward and pick up enrollment information for the public charter school. Making their way to the front of the room, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the private school’s slogan, “Faith. Family. Culture.” Children grabbed bookmarks that showcased the Cornerstone schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Although posters and murals dotting the hallways made clear that these values came from Galatians 5:22, Fruit of the Spirit — the Apostle Paul’s nine traits of a Christian — the information was noticeably absent from the giveaways.

PHOTO: Allie Gross
A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus showcasing the network’s guiding principles.

Cornerstone’s switch from private to charter raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it. It also highlights questions about privatization — whether the Cornerstone network is using its charter schools, and the public dollars they’ll bring in, to prop up their struggling religious school.

The network, and its portfolio of independent and publicly funded schools, offers an example of “the extreme difficulties private religious schools are going to confront if they are trying to become charter schools, and want in some way to maintain what they believe are their core values,” said Kary Moss of the American Civil Liberties Union, which lobbies to protect the First Amendment. “This is obviously a big problem in a state like Michigan where there is such a pro-charter movement and little regulation.”

U.S. law bars public schools from teaching religion. Voucher programs, which exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., have blurred the boundaries by allowing parents to use public education funds to pay tuition at religious schools. But Michigan does not offer vouchers. Voters rejected the practice in 1970 and again in 2000 when now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped to underwrite the ballot proposal and poured upwards of $12 million into the campaign.

As a result, there are no options for religious schools in the state to get public funds for instruction. It also means that religious schools that struggle financially have little choice but to close.

But the state’s chaotic school choice landscape offers a not-so-obvious loophole: Schools can shop for an authorizer to reopen as a charter school, allowing them to receive public funds in exchange for accountability tied to student learning. The downside: They must drop their religious affiliation and practices, and open up to all students.

That could be a tall order for Cornerstone, a 26-year old school network steeped in religious rhetoric and created for the express purpose of “lifting up a Christ-centered culture.” Brockman, like much of the current staff, says on the school’s website that she “considers it a blessing to be able to educate children in a learning environment that places Jesus Christ first.”

The network has transitioned from private to charter before — in 2009 they converted two of their religious schools into charters, and they’ve since opened two more. And their authorizer, Grand Valley State University, has found no problems with the Cornerstone charters overstepping church-state lines. Yet conversations with the school’s founder, Durant, highlight the needle-thin line they straddle.

“We are a little not-for-profit trying to do the great prophet’s work if you will. God’s work. To help these children have fulfilling lives,” Durant said in an interview with Catholic News Network last summer. He later defined a fulfilling life as “following the things Jesus would teach and to love God and to love others.”

The comments give insight into the intricacies and strength of Cornerstone’s religious roots. But they also just toe the line, never fully compromising the school’s secular status.

A big part of this is due to the outward-facing work of the network to still draw distinctions between its private and religious schools. Like the other charters, Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy will move from the purview of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the organization running the private school endeavors, to the Cornerstone Education Group, a management company that leads the network’s charters.

For example, the four charter schools adopted a brand-new curriculum, and while the schools continued to use the private schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — charter leaders do not place them in the context of the Bible or make them as much of a focus in the school day.

“What you have to do with your charter school is you say ‘OK, what are the attributes then of the character that make it possible for a person to at least begin to appreciate?’” Durant said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “So what is it? It’s love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, all these things which, in a fulfilling life, if you had those virtues, you’d be an amazing human being.”

Durant, who received a contribution and public endorsement from DeVos when he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2012, said he wants “every company, every organization” to hire his graduates, knowing that “they would infect the culture in a good way in those places.”

Still, the four charter schools, which fell in the 9th, 14th, 19th and 20th percentile according to the latest state rankings, have not hit the same threshold of success that the Cornerstone private school boasts. The low achievement, which Durant calls unacceptable, spurred a recent restructuring of the charters’ management company. A new CEO and chief academic officer were hired. The network has also been re-visioning what a Cornerstone charter school will look like, with Jefferson-Douglass Academy as a forthcoming case study.

A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus.

 

Unlike the other Cornerstone charter schools, Jefferson-Douglass Academy will keep the same curriculum the private school is currently using. Additionally, a Christ-centered class will be offered after school by a third party. Finally, the time slot that previously was saved for chapel and a “Life and Teachings of Jesus” course will stay on the schedule but be replaced with intensive character development.

The school is also in the process of re-thinking how they can make sure influential texts, such as the Bible, are still, legally, underscoring lessons.

“I think of the things that we’ve talked about a number of times and I am certainly interested in, and that is how can we be more intentional about what the kids get exposed to,” Durant said, adding that texts like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech are chock-full of religious allusions that require an understanding of the Bible to fully comprehend.

“If you begin to understand what King said — the references he’s making, why he’s referencing the 40th chapter in Isaiah, why he’s doing these other things — and you have kids go and read that stuff,” Durant said.

And while officials have been clear they understand the law and their First Amendment obligations, at a recent information session for religiously oriented Cornerstone Nevada parents, school officials emphasized that Cornerstone’s core principles and “culture” would go nowhere when the school transitions to a charter.

“We want to have as many of our kids that we can seeding the kindergarten each year,” said Ernestine Sanders, the CEO of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the private school network, explaining how the school’s current pre-K would remain private and Christian.

Current parents who expressed concerns about having students without the same background enter their children’s classes were reassured.

“Is the goal to put all the Cornerstone kids in one (class) and then everybody else in another?” a parent asked.

Sanders nodded. “That’s our goal,” she said.

Critics of allowing religious organizations to receive charters to run publicly funded schools say Cornerstone’s hybrid model is troubling. They note that even if the charter schools stay in their lane and don’t teach religion, public dollars will still be benefiting the private, religious institution.

The Nevada campus, which the private Cornerstone Schools Association owns, will be leased to the Jefferson-Douglass charter school for 13.5 percent of its yearly per-pupil funding — or an estimated $500,000. While Durant says the lease funds will be kept at an arms length from any religious programming done by the private Cornerstone Schools Association, it has been noted that the network’s only remaining religious school, the Nevada campus high school, plans to expand in the coming years.

These fuzzy lines are troubling to some.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting,” said Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University’s law school. “Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

The authorizer that green-lighted Cornerstone’s most recent switch, Grand Rapids-based Grand Valley State University, has experience authorizing schools run by religiously oriented operators. In 1990, one of their schools, Vanguard Charter School Academy, was the subject of an ACLU legal challenge. Filed on behalf of five families with children at the school, the lawsuit charged that the campus allowed prayer in school, taught creationism, and held a mandatory staff retreat with religious overtones.

The suit was ultimately dismissed, after the school made some changes as a result of the lawsuit. But not before attracting national attention to the charter school, which was run by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network founded by Michigan billionaire and DeVos friend J.C. Huizenga.

Now, Grand Valley State University, which authorizes over 65 charter schools across Michigan, says it plans to keep a close eye on the church-state issue. The group even plans to hire an outside consultant to make sure the school’s space is “free of inappropriate religious symbols,” said Alyson Murphy, the organization’s director of governance and compliance, in an email.

“We review the curriculum (I recently reviewed the Jefferson-Douglass curriculum with a fine-toothed comb) to ensure it is consistent with public school laws and we also have a school consultant who attends every board meeting,” Murphy wrote in an email. “We are working closely with the board’s legal counsel to make sure that all religious items are appropriately covered up/removed before students are in the building for class.”

Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, speaks to the crowd of potential families.

Grand Valley officials appear to have their work cut out for them, far beyond the church-state issues.

Sanders told parents at the transition meeting that the school would likely not be able to serve students with all kinds of disabilities — something private schools can do but public schools cannot.

“If we figure that we can’t meet (a student’s) needs then we’ll have to say that, because sometimes kids come with some incredible challenges, and parents, we know that another school would be able to do that,” Sanders said, noting that the school’s principal was still doing interviews to assess potential students. “You know, like autism is an area where we would say we can’t do that, but there are schools in a public school that have to meet that need, but it’s not something we can do. So the more we know, the more we can say ‘You can come here.’”

Authorizers are responsible for ensuring that charter schools comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

It will have to keep a close eye on the school’s academic performance, as the other charter schools in the Cornerstone network have struggled. One campus, Lincoln-King Academy, landed on the state’s priority list in 2014, and only recently came off of it. Today, it’s the highest ranked Cornerstone charter school, falling in the 20th percentile, but only after Sanders was hired to help bring up achievement and strengthen culture.

Finally, Grand Valley State University will have to make sure that the new school remains solvent — which could be a challenge if it fails to thrive in Detroit’s crowded charter landscape or if current parents grow alienated and leave.

Nicole Perry said she isn’t thinking about pulling her 10-year-old son Ayinde out of the school that will soon be known as Jefferson-Douglass. But she said she was dismayed to learn about the conversion, even though it will eliminate her tuition bill.

Perry, who is the current PTO president for the primary school, said she chose the school in 2012 because of its rigorous academics, small classes, and “Christ-centered learning environment.”

“I feel like with us becoming a charter school it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re like the other schools. When I used to say Cornerstone, it meant something different,” said Perry, who said she cried at the first meeting when she learned Cornerstone wouldn’t be a private school anymore.

Still, she will be there next year — one of the parents Brockman spoke of who will guide and welcome newcomers.

“No one likes change if it’s not what you want, but the way I see it we either have to get on board or get off in my mind,” she said. “My son has been here for six years, I know the lay of the land, I like the school. Let me take this new person and grab them and show them, why not help the situation rather than hurt it.”