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.

 

 

Half-priced homes

Detroit teachers and school employees are about to get a major perk: Discount houses

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is announcing an educator discount that will allow employees of all Detroit schools to buy houses from the Land Bank at 50 percent off.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is getting ready this morning to announce a major effort to lure teachers and other school employees to the city of Detroit: Offering them half-priced homes.

According to a press release that’s expected to be released at an event this morning, the mayor plans to announce that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter or parochial schools — will now get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

That discount is already available to city employees, retirees and their families. Now it will be available to full-time employees of schools located in the city.

“Teachers and educators are vital to the city’s future,” Duggan is quoted as saying in the release. “It’s critical to give our school employees, from teachers to custodial staff, the opportunity to live in the communities they teach in.”

If the effort can convince teachers to live in the city rather than surrounding suburbs, it could help a stabilize the population decline that has led to blight and neighborhood deterioration in many parts of the city.

For city schools, the discounts give administrators another perk to offer prospective employees. District and charter schools in Detroit face severe teacher shortages that have created large class sizes and put many children in classrooms without fully qualified teachers.

Detroit’s new schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, has said he’s determined to make sure the hundreds of teacher vacancies that affected city schools last year are addressed by the start of classes in September.

In the press release, he’s quoted praising the discount program. “There is an opportunity and need to provide innovative solutions to recruit and retain teachers to work with our children in Detroit.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority Educator Discount Program will be announced at an event scheduled for 10:45 this morning in front of a Land Bank house in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Land Bank currently auctions three homes per day through its website, with bidding starting at $1,000.

 

Vitti's team

Superintendent’s inner circle: These are the people Detroit’s new schools boss Nikolai Vitti has tapped to help rebuild the district

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Since arriving in Detroit two months ago, new schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti has been assembling a team of educators, lawyers — even investment bakers — to support his effort to improve the city’s struggling schools.

Among people he’s leaning on are some familiar figures in Detroit like former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and longtime district facilities chief Felicia Venable. But Vitti’s team includes many new arrivals he lured from his last job as Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. Also on the list are several people who served as top officials in the Education Achievement Authority, the defunct state recovery district that took over 15 Detroit schools in 2012. The EAA schools returned to the main Detroit district on July 1.

Here’s a look at who Vitti is turning to for advice, what they’ll be doing — and how much they’ll be paid.

Luis Solano
Chief Operating Officer

Salary: $195,000

Duties: Oversee the internal daily functions of district departments; serve as the bridge between the superintendent and district departments, initiatives and  programs.

Last job: Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Collier County Public Schools, Naples, Fla.

His story: An Army veteran and former teacher, principal and assistant principal, Solano, a fluent Spanish speaker, worked with Vitti in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district. He has degrees in special education from Florida International University, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and will soon complete a doctorate in education from the University of West Florida.

 

Iranetta Wright
Deputy Superintendent of Schools

Salary: $190,000

Duties: Oversee the daily operations of schools; manage and lead principal supervisors and indirectly principals; oversee leadership development, counseling, mental health services, discipline, school police, athletics, school improvement, and the needs of homeless students and those who are learning English.

Last job: Chief of Schools, Duval County Public Schools, Jacksonville, Fla.

Her story: Wright worked in Duval schools for 25 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal until Vitti tapped her for the district’s central office. Most recently she led the district’s high-profile “transformation” office which oversaw 36 high-need, low-performing schools. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

 

Alycia Meriweather
Deputy Superintendent of External Partnerships and Innovation

Salary: $180,000

Duties: Lead district efforts with business, non-profit, and philanthropic communities; oversee career and technical programs, examination schools, and enrollment efforts.

Last job: Interim Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit native and Detroit Public Schools grad has worked in the district for 22 years including 12 years as a science teacher. She worked in the district’s Office of Science and its curriculum office before becoming its top education official in 2016. She has education degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University and is currently pursuing a a doctorate at Wayne State.

 

 

Beth Gonzalez
Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of early learning, literacy, mathematics, social studies, and science; leads districtwide work for core professional development; manages curriculum adoption process.

Last job: Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Gonzalez has spent most of her 17-year career in the Duval County schools, working as a fifth-grade math teacher, a curriculum specialist, a data coordinator and a supervisor of test development. She worked for the Florida state education department before returning to the district to work for Vitti. She has education degrees from the University of North Florida and is pursuing a doctorate at the University of South Florida.

David Donaldson
Senior Executive Director of Talent

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide human resources functions, including recruiting teachers, on-boarding, fingerprinting, and labor relations.

Last Job: Chief Operating Officer, Future Ready Columbus in Ohio.

His story: Donaldson was briefly the principal of the Detroit Institute of Technology, one of the small schools inside Cody High School from July 2013 to February 2014 before leaving the district to join the Education Achievement Authority as associate chancellor. He left Detroit briefly this year for the job in Ohio before returning to work for Vitti. He also taught school as a Teach For America fellow in Baltimore and worked in the New York City Department of Education. He has degrees from Eastern Michigan University, Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in education from Harvard University.

Felicia Venable
Senior Executive Director of Facilities, Transportation, Food Service and Maintenance.

Salary: $160,000

Duties: Lead districtwide management and implementation of facilities, transportation, food service, and maintenance.

Last job: Executive Director of Facilities, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Worked for the Detroit district in various roles since 2000 after a stint as a health inspector and analyst for the city of Detroit. She has degrees from Tennessee State University, Wayne State University and Walsh College.

 

Elizabeth Cutrona
Senior Executive Director for Strategic Planning and Project Management

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Oversee district strategic plan, goals, and targets; manage district project management system; develop evaluation tools and performance targets.

Last Job: Assistant Superintendent, Strategic Planning and Partnerships, Duval County Public Schools.

Her story: Cutrona worked as an English teacher for three years in Miami before going to work for The New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization. In 2015, she interviewed Vitti for the organization’s blog. She went to work for him in 2016. She has a degree from Hamilton College.

 

Sharlonda Buckman
Senior Executive Director of Family and Community Engagement

Salary: $145,000

Duties: Lead districtwide community and family engagement efforts.

Last Job: Executive Director, Detroit Parent Network.

Her story: The Detroit native has been running the city’s largest parent network since 2005. The organization said it expanded its membership by 12 times during her time at the helm. She also worked as an administrator at the Michigan Metro Girl Scouts Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit and the Warren/Connor Development Coalition. She has a master’s degree from New Hampshire College.

 

Christine Burkett
Senior Executive Director of Information Technology

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Oversee districtwide information technology systems; manage compliance and reporting functions for accountability and assessment (i.e. district and state testing).

Last Job: Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Data, Technology and Assessment at Old Redford Academy School District.

Her story: Burkett started her career as a science tech, chemistry and robotics teacher at Detroit’s Crockett Tech and Redford High Schools before going to work for charter schools. She has served as a curriculum and assessment coordinator for the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences High School and as a top official at the Old Redford Academy. She also worked for private sector firms including General Motors where she developed training for new employees and created online training courses. She has degrees from Delaware State University, Marygrove College, Capella University and a doctorate in educational psychology and technology from Michigan State University.

 

Jason Rose
Senior Executive Director of Research, Evaluation, and Analytics

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Leads the districtwide work of internal and external research. Evaluates district programs; manages data analytics to anticipate districtwide challenges and opportunities; develops policy analysis to guide district strategy.

Last job: Vice-President, Data & Research, Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

His story: Rose worked as an elementary school teacher in Georgia for four years before going into research as he pursued a doctorate in early childhood intervention and literacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s worked for the Jacksonville education fund since 2011. He also has degrees from Ithaca College and Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia.

Rod Hardamon
Special Projects

Salary: being negotiated

Duties: Manages complex, high-level and visible special projects across departments to ensure execution.

Last job: Chairman, URGE Development Group and URGE Imprint.

His story: While Hardamon’s development group is pursuing a $77 million housing and retail development in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, his strategic consulting group helped lead the effort to re-integrate the EAA schools with the main Detroit district. Before moving to Detroit, Hardamon worked as a New York investment banker and hedge fund manager for Citigroup and related firms. He has a degree from Morehouse College.

 

Kristen Howard
Executive Director of Compliance and Special Assistant to the Superintendent

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Manages follow-up activities of federal and state audit findings; oversees development of board committee and board meeting agenda; coordinates and follows up on superintendent issues with the board.

Last Job: Executive Director of Compliance, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: As an attorney with the Clark Hill lawfirm, Howard represented the Detroit Retirement System in Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy proceedings. She came to work for Detroit schools last year as an unpaid consultant to Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes. She later spent six months as a senior legal advisor to the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in the compliance role in December. Howard graduated from from Georgetown law school and clerked for a federal judge in Maryland. She also has a degree from Howard University.

 

Bernadette Kakooza
Inspector General

Salary: $140,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts to identify and investigate fraud, malfeasance, corruption; tentatively positioned to lead internal auditing to identify audit concerns before federal and state audits. This position reports to the school board but is led administratively by the superintendent.

 

Last job: Inspector General, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Kakooza has spent her entire 20-year career in the district, working as an auditor and accountant for Office of Internal Audit, the Office of the Inspector General and at Cass Technical High School. She is a certified fraud examiner with degrees from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Interim officials:

Tony Saunders
Interim chief financial officer

Salary: $25,000 a month per contract (includes additional support personnel, no health benefits).

Duties: Oversee districtwide functions for budget, finance, payroll, contracting, and federal programs.

Last job: Chief Restructuring and Financial Officer, Wayne County.

His story: Saunders has advised many school districts and government agencies in Michigan and around the country and worked for a firm that helped the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy. He has a degree from the University of Michigan.

 

 

Chrystal Wilson
Interim Senior Executive Director of Communications and Marketing

Salary: $120,000

Duties: Lead districtwide internal and external communications, including development and implementation of marketing plan.

Last job: Deputy Executive Director of Communications and Press Secretary, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: Wilson served as communications director for the EAA before joining the main Detroit district in 2015.  She previously worked for a private PR firm. She has a degree from Wayne State University.

 

Phyllis Hurks-Hill
Chief Legal Counsel (This position is posted for interviews)

Salary: $155,000

Duties: Lead districtwide efforts in legal review and guidance; oversees board policy and development.

Last job: General Counsel, Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Her story: The Detroit resident has worked for the district, first as a deputy general counsel then as general counsel, since 2005. Prior to that she was in private practice. She has degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan Law School.