The school board approved a proposal to open the city’s first public Montessori school in 2014, marking a step forward in a new experiment in grassroots, parent-led school reform.
At its regular meeting Monday at 54 Meadow St., the board unanimously approved a proposal to create a new charter school called Elm City Montessori, starting with 69 New Haven kids ages 3 to 5 in the fall of 2014.
The school would be a “local charter,” a new designation the state has created to allow charter schools to operate within a local school district instead of on their own. The school district would fund the school and oversee it. The proposal still needs approval from the state, which would kick in an extra $3,000 per pupil.
In approving the proposal, Mayor John DeStefano noted that the idea originated not from an outside group looking to expand into New Haven, but from the grassroots, led by New Haven parents.
The idea came from three moms frustrated with a lack of quality pre-K offerings in the city. It has grown into a full-fledged proposal backed by a nine-person board including Dave Low, a vice-president in the city teachers union.
Low and Elm City Montessori co-founder Eliza Halsey (pictured above) presented the proposal Monday night before the vote. They had originally hoped to open the school this fall.
However, the school district determined it doesn’t have the money to open so quickly, Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries reported Monday. He said in the school’s inaugural year, 51 of the 69 seats would be pre-K spots. To pay for those, the district would have to take away funding from another pre-K program, he said.
Harries (pictured) recommended delaying the opening until the fall of 2014. By that time, he said, the district hopes to benefit from statewide and national momentum toward investing in early childhood education. President Obama recently unveiled a “Preschool for All” proposal, calling for a $75 billion investment in pre-K over the next decade. Harries said that would likely result in extra pre-K seats in 2014.
Harries made the recommendation after hearing lots of positive feedback on the Montessori proposal at a public hearing last month. He called the proposal a “compelling educational model” that would complement private Montessoris around town. New Haven has one public “modified Montessori” classroom at Gateway Community College and two private Montessoris in Edgewood and on Grand Avenue, but no public Montessori schools as of yet, and none that go up to 8th grade.
Elm City Montessori proposes opening with 69 kids and growing to serve 209 kids up to grade 4 over five years, at which point its charter would be up for renewal. The eventual goal is to build a full-fledged K-8 school.
Halsey and Low (pictured) made the case for the school in a presentation before the board.
Low, a Sound School teacher with 20 years’ experience, showed up to the school board in a signature brightly colored shirt (purple this time, not phosphorescent blue). He said the Montessori model has been “universally accepted” around the world as a method that “can serve all kids, and serve them well.”
“We’re not personally interested in test scores,” he said, but for those who are, he showed scores indicating Montessoris outperform traditional schools across the board, and even in urban settings. There are “no deficiencies” to the model, he argued, “even on the poor measure of standardized tests.”
New Haven’s school would be based on the Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet in Hartford, which Low called “the national model for public Montessori.”
Like the self-paced experiment taking hold at High School in the Community (called “mastery-based learning”), Montessori’s approach allows kids to progress on their own time. As Low put it, “learning is constant,” and time is variable, not the other way around. Teachers act as “guides” who help kids move through different stations, where they play with apparatus particular to the Montessori model (click here to take a peek inside a classroom).
“Concentration comes from the inherent curiosity of children,” Low said. “What I love about Montessori is it encourages and promotes that curiosity—it doesn’t kill it.”
He praised the model for offering kids more independence, leadership roles through mixed-age classrooms, and structured feedback on “executive function,” which is how kids learn to regulate their behavior. He said Montessoris focus on “resolving difficulties early” helps prevent kids from getting labeled unnecessarily as special needs.
The question about bringing a public Montessori to New Haven shouldn’t be “why now,” Low said, but “why not sooner?”
As a member of the New Haven Federation of Teachers negotiating team, Low vowed to push for an amendment to the next teachers contract to allow for special rules for unionized teachers at the Montessori school. New rules would include requiring teachers to make home visits to families—something no other teachers are required to do, except at Domus Academy, a turnaround school run by a social services agency. The current teachers contract expires June 30, 2014.
Teachers at the school would need a state certification to teach the Montessori method, Low and Halsey said. They said they have received such enthusiastic response about doing a public Montessori in an urban setting that they have already received resumes of certified teachers ready to start in the fall. They also aim to create a “pipeline” that would allow local teachers to train in the Montessori method, as well as allow classroom aides a pathway to become teachers.
Low said the school would open in the spirit of Albert Shanker’s original vision for charter schools—as test labs for experimentation that would then be replicated across the district if they work. If the experiment doesn’t work, he told the board, “I’m going to be the first one insisting that you not renew the charter.”
Low noted one challenge facing the school: Reaching “under-resourced” families. At the public hearing on the proposal last month, one parent noted the mostly white crowd did not reflect the diversity of the city.
He and Halsey vowed to address that—first through recruitment, and eventually by locating the school in an under-served neighborhood. In its first years, the school would accept kids from across the city through a random lottery with no neighborhood preference. The school would be housed in a few classrooms at an existing city school, most likely the former Benjamin Jepson school in Fair Haven Heights. Low said once the school is big enough to stand on its own, founders plan to place it in a neighborhood that “has a history of challenges,” such as Newhallville or the Hill.
Halsey said the school would do intensive outreach to recruit families from those neighborhoods. The school would make use of relationships of people on the board, such as Kia Levey, project director of the MOMs Partnership, which connects low-income moms to mental health services.
The school is also being supported by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Center, Halsey said.
The main hurdle identified is the budget. Montessori teachers take extra training, and there’s a startup cost to equipping classrooms. Halsey said the school plans to run the school within the budget of per-pupil spending paid for by the state school readiness program, which pays $695.50 per month per child. As part of the application to the state, the school is requesting planning money for the next year.
Haries praised Low, Halsey and their compatriots as a “high-capacity leadership team.” He said the district fully supports the idea—as long as it can find the money to pay for it. The district has submitted an application for a federal magnet school grant that includes money for the Montessori school, he said. As a condition of approval, he suggested the school needs to prove it has enough money so that its financial support would not take away funding from other New Haven schools.
The school board approved his recommendation, with that and several other conditions, by a 7-0 vote. One board member, Elizabeth Torres, was absent.
Board member Alex Johnston called the idea “very promising.”
“This is what we had in mind when we thought about school change,” he said—the flexibility to try out new ideas.
DeStefano, who now sits on the board of Achievement First’s Amistad Academy, a successful local charter school, said he hopes to see other local charter proposals in New Haven in upcoming years—with the same level of “rigor” that Halsey and Low have exhibited.
In a local charter proposal, the local school board authorizes the school’s charter, funds the school, and is responsible for its performance. The proposal also needs approval from the state Board of Education—and funding from the legislature, which has threatened to yank money Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put into his budget for new charter schools.
Johnston said he understands the need to wait another year to open the school, but he expressed an eagerness to get started, given the strength of the proposal and the support from the teachers union.
“I really hope we find a way to make this happen.”