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.

 

 

change at the top

Warning of ‘inconsistency at the top,’ Detroit school administrators, teachers urge board to reconsider Meriweather

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather is not among finalists in the running to be Detroit's permanent district superintendent.

Even as the Detroit Public Schools Community District moves forward with planning day-long interviews for the three finalists in the running to be Detroit’s next superintendent, supporters of the woman currently in the top job have continued to push her case.

After the Detroit school board announced over the weekend that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather was not among finalists for the permanent position, ten top district administrators signed a letter urging the board to keep their current boss in the running.

“Our district has endured an enormous amount of change in leadership over the past 10 years,” the administrators wrote, adding that the district has “succumbed to the dictates of 5 emergency managers and have finally returned to local control.”

The letter calls on the board to give Meriweather a formal interview noting that district leadership has “seen up close and personal the detriment of inconsistency at the top.”

The administrators are part of an effort that was joined Wednesday by the city teachers union, which released a statement urging the board to consider Meriweather. Hundreds of her supporters have also signed a petition.

The board has three finalists scheduled for 12-hour interviews that will include school visits, parent meetings and public questioning by the board.

Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools is scheduled for an interview on March 29th. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., is scheduled for April 3. And Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district, is scheduled for April 5.

Board President Iris Taylor said the board has no plans to add a fourth candidate to the mix.

“We have a process that we’ve established and that we’ve agreed upon and we’re going to continue to follow that process,” she said.

Meriweather’s interim contract continues until June 30. She says she intends to stay focused on the job until then but wouldn’t comment this week on whether she’ll plan to stay with the district under a new superintendent.

Here’s the letter from district leaders that was signed by top district administrators including the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations Marios Demetriou, its Executive Director of Enrollment Steve Wasko and several district network leaders:

Looking ahead

Despite being passed over for top job, Alycia Meriweather says she’s focused on changes ahead for Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather addresses parents and teachers at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on Detroit's west side about the school's return to the district.

When Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and other top officials from the Detroit Public Schools Community District arrived in the auditorium of Bethune Elementary-Middle School on Tuesday afternoon, their goal was to calm frayed nerves.

Bethune is among 11 schools that will be returning to the main Detroit district this summer after five years in the state-run Education Achievement Authority and district officials have been making the rounds of returning schools, promising a smooth transition.

“I wanted to come to each of these meetings personally to make sure that we clearly communicate that DPSCD is excited to have our family back,” Meriweather told Bethune parents and teachers, vowing that the district would “move everyone back into the family and move the whole family toward excellence.”

But even as Meriweather rallied the troops at the school on Detroit’s west side, her hopeful predictions about the future struck an odd note just days after the Detroit school board narrowed its superintendent search to three finalists that did not include Meriweather.

The interim superintendent’s exclusion from the search process has triggered angry reactions on social media. Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging the school board to reconsider. And on Wednesday, the union representing Detroit teachers called on the board to give Meriweather a shot.

“During her tenure, Interim Superintendent Meriweather has led the way in restoring trust, confidence and hope in our school district,” the Detroit Federation of Teachers wrote in a Facebook post. “She has earned an opportunity for further consideration.”

Board President Iris Taylor did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Meriweather had applied for the permanent position but said her elimination won’t change her focus between now and the end of her contract in June.

“What I’m committed to right now is through June 30th and making sure that we move this district forward,” Meriweather said. “My hope is the same hope I had when I took the interim position, which is that every piece of work that I have done in the last year will be good enough to keep moving forward no matter who sits in this seat.”

Several Bethune parents and teachers said knowing that Meriweather is leaving adds another layer of uncertainty to the already daunting prospect of their school returning to the district, but Meriweather said most of the transition details will be addressed before she leaves.

She told the parents and teachers in the Bethune auditorium that EAA teachers will get letters next week promising them that they can remain in their current positions as long as they’re certified and not rated “ineffective.” What they will be paid, however, will be the subject of ongoing negotiations between the district and the city teachers union because many EAA teachers make more than their district counterparts.

Parents who want to keep their children in their current EAA schools can do so without having to deal with extra paperwork, Meriweather said, adding that the district is committed to maintaining continuity.

“I wanted you to hear straight from me: Who I am, who we are and where we’re going,” Meriweather said. “We’re excited to have you back and I really look forward to this transition and making it as smooth as possible.”

Despite the superintendent search news, Meriweather has kept up her schedule of events and community meetings this week. Her signature is on the lawsuit the district just filed opposing state plans to shutter 16 district schools.

She will be the one negotiating a “partnership” with the state education department that is intended to keep those 16 schools open as well as eight EAA schools that were also on the closure list, she said.

The school board is moving ahead with scheduling interviews with the three men who were named as finalists: Orlando Ramos, a regional superintendent for the Milwaukee Public Schools; Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Derrick Coleman, who is superintendent of the River Rouge district.

All three will go through a 12-hour interview process that will include school visits and parent meetings as well as a public interview with the board, the district announced Wednesday. Ramos’ interview is scheduled for March 29th, Vitti’s for April 3 and Coleman’s for April 5.

Asked whether she intends to remain with the district under a new superintendent, Meriweather declined to answer.

“At this point, I’m going to say no comment,” she said.