How a Montessori Movement is Reinventing Public Schools
One afternoon early in this school year, a fourth grader at Magnolia Montessori For All, a public school in Austin, Texas, sat working independently on her math lesson. But then, she noticed a moth on a classroom curtain. She stood up and walked to the window. A friend joined her. They conferred about how to capture it, deciding upon a glass jar and a sheet of paper. They examined the moth through the glass. Eventually, they stepped out of their classroom door and freed the moth into the steamy late summertime. Then, they returned to their work.
The moment contrasted with the tight control approach found in many high-performing classrooms, where wandering over to a moth in the middle of a math lesson would cause a student to be redirected, if not reprimanded. And yet, for those students, it was pure, joyful learning. “We want those moments to happen,” says Sara Cotner (S. Louisiana ’00), school leader at Magnolia and co-founder of the Montessori For All school network. “Those kids weren’t just having a mini-science lesson; they were cultivating problem solving, critical thinking, empathy, collaboration.”
This could be a story about one promising approach in Austin, but it’s not. Cotner and co-founder Sarah Kirby Tepera (Houston ’00) have little patience for that level of tinkering. They are trying to nurture kids who will one day save the world, and their odds improve the more kids they reach. So they’re reinventing school, augmenting Montessori with the best of what they and other veterans of high-performing charter schools have learned in 25 years of school reform. And they’re sharing their Montessori-with-academic-rigor hybrid far and wide.
Montessori For All’s model was conceived as “a third way,” Kirby Tepera says. It is pure Montessori-style instruction with all the components that make this the learning style of choice for royalty (yes, little Prince George of Cambridge is a Montessorian), enhanced with the muscle and methodologies to tackle the heftiest problems in American education. The network’s founding charter school, Magnolia, enrolls 400 students from pre-K (starting at age 3) through fifth grade (by 2019, through eighth grade). About half its students come from families with low incomes. Nearly 60 percent are non-white, an intentional reflection of Austin’s demographics.
In 2017, Montessori For All will open a school in San Antonio. In 2019, another will open in a Texas city yet to be finalized. By 2030, with financial support from organizations like the New Schools Venture Fund, the network plans to serve more than 43,000 students at more than 70 schools in eight states.
With grants from foundations including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Cotner is aligning the school’s methods to Common Core standards and codifying the network’s curricula to share publicly. Cotner speaks nationally about the network's work. Magnolia welcomes frequent observers, including, in August, the provost of Relay Graduate School of Education. Through these channels and others, Cotner and Kirby Tepera hope to bring their message to more than 10 million people.
When it opens its third school, Montessori For All will also debut a Montessori teacher-training center based in Austin to address the nationwide shortage of certified Montessori instructors. The organization will also collaborate with schools and districts nationwide to infuse the Montessori philosophy into traditional education.
“Montessori flips everything on its head and starts with an approach that’s 100 percent differentiated, 100 percent personalized, 100 percent competency-based. It embeds social and emotional learning into the very fabric of what kids do, and it puts respect for the child at the very core of its philosophy,” Cotner says. “There are more than 50 million kids in the public school system, and we want to impact as many as possible.”
The Power of the Network
Cotner also co-leads the Montessori for Equity Collaborative, a national group of about a dozen like-minded school leaders who have formed themselves into a network that gathers monthly via conference call to help each other build and strengthen similar third-way schools. Voices chime in from Memphis, Tennessee; Cleveland; St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere. One school leader worked for Arne Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education, some worked for educational non-profits, and several, like Cotner, worked for years in high-performing charter schools. The call is a sort of group therapy, but it also helps fulfill Cotner and Kirby Tepera’s mission in launching Montessori For All: to expand the movement widely and quickly.
Many in the collaborative started working toward this new educational model for a common reason: They started their own families and realized that there were no public schools—even the ones they had helped to build—where they wanted to send their children. They wanted academic rigor but also student autonomy. They wanted a safe and orderly environment but also a warm and loving approach to discipline. They wanted a way to track learning, but they didn’t want test prep to trump nurturing a child’s natural desire to learn. And they wanted students who represented the diversity of their communities.
Cotner, whose children attend Magnolia, describes herself and her colleagues as existing at the tiny center of a large Venn diagram. One circle is the public Montessori movement. One is high-performing charter schools. One is the “next-gen schools” movement that includes other models, like Summit Public Schools, that incorporate personalized learning. They’re also in the circle for intentionally diverse schools, like Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and the circle for schools cultivating social-emotional learning.
What that means is that their schools don’t always replicate pure Montessori models. At Magnolia, a 30-minute end-of-day recess isn’t pure Montessori, but it surreptitiously creates a block of time that can be used for remediation for struggling students.
Many Montessorians are religiously anti-testing, but all of the coalition’s schools use tests and assessments. In part, this ensures compliance with public requirements, but it also helps teachers ensure they’re closing gaps between lower and higher academic performers. At Elm City Montessori, a charter school in New Haven, Connecticut, the assessments also allow teachers to engage with the school’s special education coordinator, who is provided by the district.
The schools also incorporate added accountability measures learned largely from high-performing charters. At Magnolia, teachers have mini-conferences with students after each piece of work they complete—not a part of the traditional Montessori setup. Teachers do guided reading with students, track their progress, and share it with families. Students and teachers set academic goals to which they hold themselves accountable every 12 weeks.
Follow the Child
Montez Crider (Greater Nashville ’09) is a founding assistant teacher at Libertas Montessori in Memphis—part of Cotner’s collaborative—where almost all of the students are black. He is midway through his Montessori certification training. Prior to Libertas, Crider worked at LEAD Academy Nashville and KIPP Memphis Prep. At both schools, he loved the camaraderie among his colleagues and felt successful as a teacher. But he says he was burning out on tasks that weren’t directly related to being with kids in the classroom.
Crider landed at Libertas in 2015. “This Montessori thing is the bomb,” he says. But he adds that it takes work to grow it beyond its development in the U.S. within a mostly white, mostly middle-class set of values. “And to do that is Montessori. Montessori says to follow the child, and to follow the child we have to look at the child in this environment.”
As an example, he notes the Montessori emphasis on teaching the theory of evolution in elementary school. That won’t fly with a lot of his students’ parents, he says. “It’s not insurmountable, but let’s be aware of a potential problem with teaching evolution in the Bible Belt. Let’s be ready to say, ‘Yes, we’re learning about that alongside many different creation stories,’” he says. “We’re teaching these students to look at all of these different things and come up with their own beliefs.”
As a black male Montessori teacher, Crider is, as he puts it, “a leprechaun on a unicorn riding up a yellow brick road.” He’s one of two at Libertas and the only one who is full time. A recent survey by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector of more than 300 teacher trainees found that 69 percent of respondents were white and 90 percent were female.
The shortage of a diverse field of Montessori teachers is one reason why opening more Montessori training centers is fundamental to the long-term growth of this hybrid model, Cotner says. Montessori For All projects it will be able to train 2,300 teachers by 2034.
For all of its bold ideas, the network’s approach is part of an evolution in what schools look like, not a rejection of past reforms, says Kirby Tepera. In fact, she says, many of her colleagues at charter schools are working just as hard on their campuses to incorporate elements like personalized learning and holistic approaches to student discipline. “I don’t think anyone in the high-performing charter world made a wrong turn, but I think the consensus is that the movement stopped too soon. They made this massive leap forward, and we owe them a massive debt of gratitude for changing the vision of what’s possible for kids,” Kirby Tepera says. “But we’re not done. We need another step forward.”
Cotner agrees. At her office in Austin, she unrolls a desk-sized blueprint of the building plans for Magnolia’s new campus, set to begin construction this fall. The $13 million public school, funded with cash reserves and the help of an ongoing capital campaign, will rival the campuses of private Montessori schools. Instead of one building, it will be a collection of small houses surrounding courtyards. Each house will contain one class of students, each class spanning three grades, per the Montessori model. A screened-in porch attached to each house will allow students to work in the fresh air, if they choose. And there are plans for a small farm where students will grow vegetables to serve at lunchtime and to sell at a student-run farmers market.
“Montessori is a way of restructuring schools so that the community becomes a micro-society and you coach and guide children to interact in peaceful, kind ways. And those children become the leaders of the future,” Cotner says. She paraphrases the founder: “Maria Montessori said that you can’t educate children from birth to compete with each other and then expect there not to be war. I think that’s just brilliant.”
Demand for public Montessori schools is growing: They’ve been around since the 1960s, but more than half of the nation’s roughly 500 schools have opened in the past decade. Still, they face a perennial struggle to find enough qualified teachers. Dakota Prosch (Chi–NWI ’00) is in her 16th year in the classroom and her 8th year at a Montessori school, currently Suder Montessori, a magnet school on Chicago’s South Side. She says, “I think Montessori is the only method I have learned that truly flips education on its head and provides opportunities for kids to stop being told what to do, which only reinforces the class structures and racial inequities that we all see and want to stop but don’t know how to stop.”
- Interested in becoming a Montessori teacher? Visit teach-montessori.org to learn more about Montessori teacher certification from infancy through high school, including an international map of training centers. (There are about 135 centers in the U.S.) Teach-Montessori’s website also includes a list of available jobs.
- To learn more about the Montessori method and public Montessori schools:
- Read Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard. It’s an academic text, but offers comprehensive descriptions of Montessori methods and extensive research in support of them.
- The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector is a clearinghouse of available research about public Montessori schools. It also includes a map of schools nationwide.
- Join the Montessori for Social Justice Facebook group or visit its website.
About the Author
Leah Fabel is a Teach For America alum (Chicago '01) and has been at One Day since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who is also an education journalist, and their two sons.