By Jan Worth-Nelson
Can a classroom that allows students to learn at their own pace, help one another, and follow their natural curiosities actually work in a public school system?
And could such a teaching approach enrich options for Flint students and help convince reluctant parents to bring their children back to the public schools?
A group of Flint-area parents fervently believe the answer to both questions is “yes.”
Due to their efforts and a receptive superintendent of schools, a kindergarten/first grade Montessori classroom was established for the first time this year in the Flint Community School district.
The pilot class meets in a room the district provided at Durant Tuuri Mott Elementary School. Its 13 students are supervised by teacher Michele Stinson and UM-Flint student teacher Amanda Ling.
The parents’ group and the district hope the idea will catch on with other parents and teachers and already plan to add a second Montessori classroom next fall. They say they are “actively recruiting” now for 2017-2018.
Free for all Flint students
What’s unusual about the FCS/Montessori arrangement is that participating in the classroom is tuition-free and open to all kids in the Flint district, according to Vivian Kao, a college professor, resident of the College Cultural neighborhood since 2015, and one of the parents on the organizing committee.
“Usually, Montessori programs are in private schools, and they have a reputation for being for ‘high income, high-middle class white suburban’ kids — they can be expensive. But this is available for any Flint student,” just like any of the other educational opportunities in the district, she noted.
Based on the work and ideas of early 20th century Italian educator Maria Montessori, the Montessori system, according to materials provided for prospective parents by program leaders, is a way of teaching in which students
- “learn at their own pace and have freedom within limits
- learn from each other in multi-age classrooms
- learn with hands-on materials, moving from concrete to abstract concepts and
- learn by following their natural curiosities. “
Kao said in a Montessori classroom students don’t sit in desks and are not all facing forward in rows as in a traditional classroom. The Montessori classroom is designed with different zones – with supplies students can work on set up on low shelves so students can get them down themselves.
There is always a “peace corner,” she said, where kids go to read or just to sit and be calm. But it’s not everybody sitting by themselves. They can get up whenever they want and they don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom, she said. Also,the current K-1 classroom is capped at a student teacher ratio of 17-1, lower than the general district limit.
Critiques have emerged over the decades about the Montessori system– it is too “individual,” its materials limit creativity, it has not kept up with evolving cognitive theory – but the Flint Montessori parents say they believe the system has proven its flexibility over time and most of all want their children and any others in the district to have the choice.
Superintendent Bilal Tawwab, in an email to East Village Magazine, agreed.
“Flint Community Schools recognizes that families want and need a variety of high-quality options for their children, as one size does not fit all,” he wrote. “That is why we are so pleased to add the Montessori program.”
Elizabeth Jordan, a parent who spearheaded the initiative and now coordinates meetings and communications, said feedback about the program from families so far has been “overwhelmingly positive, and the teacher is truly excited to work in a Montessori classroom.”
Following an Okemos model
Kao said the Flint effort is modeled after a similar program in the Okemos schools, where the district added one Montessori grade level a year and now has moved into their own building – a formerly closed one.
The Okemos findings so far suggest that Montessori students do just as well or better than students in regular classes in required state standardized tests, Kao said.
While test results are politically and educationally promising, there can be some adjustments in adapting Montessori within a regular school system, and the parents know they will have to make compromises. For instance, the Flint Montessori students wear uniforms just like all other Flint public school students and abide by the same starting and ending times each day.
There also are adjustments for the kids themselves, which is one of the reasons the parents’ group hopes the program will eventually be available for higher grades.
“For kids who got used to taking responsibility for their own learning in a Montessori preschool, transitioning to a traditional school environment can be jarring – sitting at a desk and doing assigned work does not fit every kid (or a lot of adults!), “ Jordan said.
She added the pilot program this year attracted students from “across Flint and beyond – including those who previously looked to private and charter schools.
“No one else in the county offers this kind of public Montessori elementary program, so Flint has a real gem,” she said.
Trying to save public education in Flint
For the inaugural group of parents, the stakes are high in having a public school Montessori option. Their hopes for the expansion of the Montessori option are not just about the pedagogy itself, but about trying to help save public education in Flint.
Because of the way the state funds public education, paying districts “by the head,” parents who choose to take their kids out of the public system seeking different educational options end up shortchanging public school funding while trying to do the best for their kids, Kao noted. The state pays school districts about $7,000 per student per year.
“The system the state has created is one in which your either choose your child or your community – and that’s ridiculous. The money each of our kids brings into the district helps all the students, not just our own.”
Kao and her husband Ben Pauli, a Kettering social science professor, see parallels between the emergency manager phenomenon and the way public schools are squeezed in cities like Flint.
For “shrinking cities” like Flint, Kao and Pauli contend, the result of the state funding system is compounds a city’s struggles, reducing resources to districts which need it most and forcing the public schools to compete with others.
“Public schools should not have to advertise for students,” Kao said.
Funding from Welch Foundation
Costs for a batch of standardized Montessori materials – what students can choose from to work on – were covered by a grant from the Welch Foundation. The foundation also is paying for the Montessori teacher training and certification.
Montessori teachers in the public school system must be double-certified – both by the state and by the Montessori system, Kao stated.
Jordan said the Flint Community School district “has reaffirmed to us their support of having multiple high-quality options available for families.
FCS Superintendent Tawwab noted, “Early education is the foundation to a successful school career, laying the building blocks youngsters need to grow intellectually and socially. This is another option for families that will prepare children for success in our classrooms and, more importantly, in their lives.”
According to Kao, the parents’ group hopes that while the program is beginning with one kindergarten/first grade class, it will grow considerably in the next several years.
Jordan said, “The long term vision for the program is that we will have a public Montessori program through at least middle school, and that we add grades each year and classes as needed to accommodate the level of demand.”
Interested parents are invited to attend the Montessori group meetings at 4 p.m. the third Friday of every month in the library of Durant Tuuri Mott Elementary. To qualify for next year’s kindergarten class, students must turn five by Dec. 1, 2017.
For more information or for enrollment call (810) 760-1232 or email Keiona Murphy, firstname.lastname@example.org.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.