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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

Fear and fury

Educators blast ‘uninformed decisions’ behind state plan to shutter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students line up at Michigan Technical Academy, which is on the list of 38 Michigan schools that could be forced to close in June.

The news that state officials are moving to shutter as many as 38 Michigan schools triggered fear and fury from parents and educators.

Concerns were especially heightened in Detroit where 25 schools were put on notice that they’ll have to close their doors in June unless the state decides that closure would pose an “unreasonable hardship” to students — or unless school leaders are able to block the closures in court.

The state School Reform Office “is making uninformed decisions without consistent data on growth and achievement,” steamed Veronica Conforme, who heads the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that saw eight of its 14 schools on the dreaded closure list.

“Today’s public announcement comes without input from districts, educators or community,” Conforme said. “This should make us all question the validity of this action.”

Conferme said most of the EAA schools have seen improved math and reading scores on state exams — evidence that she believes shows the schools are on the right track.

“Our students cannot continue to move between schools year after year,” Conforme said. “Short-sighted decisions create more volatility in our city, leaving families trapped in a downward spiral.”

The school reform office says it is closing schools in an effort to make sure kids have a shot at a decent education.

“Our goal is to make sure that every kid in the state of Michigan has access to a quality education so they can have the skills necessary for a high-wage job, a career or college,” said Natasha Baker, who heads the state School Reform Office. “It’s the only way to end multi-generational poverty for the children in the schools we’re serving.”

Educators have raised concerns that closing a school can be disruptive to children and communities because changing schools can hurt kids’ academic progress, but Baker responded that it’s “more disruptive to a community when they graduate thousands of kids who can’t read.”

The 38 schools landed on the closure list because they ranked in the bottom five percent of state schools for three years in a row. The rankings are calculated based on test scores and graduation rates but critics say there are many ways to measure a school.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank that supports school choice and accountability, noted in a statement Friday that the list of potentially closing schools includes six schools that received passing grades on the center’s school ranking system, which factors in student poverty levels. One school that could close actually got an A on the center’s report card.

The schools marked for closure in Detroit include the eight Education Achievement Authority schools, 16 schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and one Detroit charter school.

Chalkbeat wrote about the charter school, Michigan Technical Academy, last year when the school was trying to make a case that things started improving when new school leaders came into the building in 2015 and introduced a new way of teaching

Phillip Price, the school principal. said Friday that he’s still hoping he’ll get more time to show his school can succeed.

“Give me three to five years and I can turn a school around,” Price said. “Just give me the time and I’m going to take care of saving the school for the students because that’s what I do … I was one of these kids when I was younger, right in one of these neighborhoods, and somebody gave us the time and it worked.”

The School Reform Office said it will make final decisions about closures in the next 30-45 days after considering things like school location to determine whether students have access to higher quality schools.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Michigan Technical Academy Principal Phillip Price is still hoping he’ll get more time to turn things around at the Michigan Technical Academy, which is on the state’s potential closure list

Three strikes

These 38 Michigan schools could be shut down for poor performance in June

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

The state of Michigan Friday put 38 struggling schools on notice.

After years of rock-bottom test scores and disappointing results, the schools were informed that they’re in serious danger of having to shut their doors forever in June.

“Because we want all kids to have a good life after high school, our office is responsible for taking action when schools have been chronically failing for several years,” state School Reform Officer Natasha Baker said in a statement.

A statement from Baker’s office said officials will use the next 30 to 45 days to “examine the geographic, academic, and enrollment capacity of other public school options for children attending one of the 38 failing schools.”

If the office determines that closing a school would be an “unreasonable hardship” to students because no better options are available, the office will let the school remain open and try to help school leaders turn things around.

The issue is expected to end up in court as school leaders across the state have vowed to fight closures.

The schools on the list are 16 Detroit public schools, one Detroit charter school and eight Detroit schools that are controlled by the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that will revert back to the district’s control this summer.

The news comes as part of a new push by the state to crack down on schools that have produced years of disappointing results.

State lawmakers forced the issue last year when they passed a law requiring the state to shutter every school — district or charter — in the city of Detroit that has spent three or more years in the bottom five percent of the state’s annual school rankings.

Chalkbeat broke the news last summer that the state School Reform Office intended to apply the same standard to schools across the state, creating uncertainty for dozens of schools that were in the bottom five percent in 2014 and 2015.

School leaders were surprised to learn that school rankings from 2014 and 2015 would be used to apply serious consequences since the rankings are largely based on test scores and Michigan Department of Education had told schools it wouldn’t hold scores against them for the first years of the new M-STEP exam, which replaced the MEAP in 2015.

The School Reform Office, however, is no longer a part of the Department of Education. Gov. Rick Snyder took over the office in 2015 in an effort to increase pressure on low-performing schools.

Here’s a list of the Detroit Public Schools Community District schools that could be closing:

Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School
Bow Elementary-Middle School
Clark, J.E. Preparatory Academy
Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern
Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody
Durfee Elementary-Middle School
Fisher Magnet Upper Academy
Gompers Elementary-Middle School
Henderson Academy
Marquette Elementary-Middle School
Mason Elementary School
Osborn Academy of Mathematics
Osborn College Preparatory Academy
Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy
Sampson Academy
Thirkell Elementary School

Detroit Charter schools:

Michigan Technical Academy

Education Achievement Authority schools:

Burns Elementary-Middle School
Denby High School
Ford High School
Law Elementary School
Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School
Mumford High School
Pershing High School
Southeastern High School

See the full list here.