Alanda Canty fessed up that her class at Elm City Montessori School had accidentally broken some school supplies, but she hoped the Board of Education wouldn’t hold that against them in an upcoming vote to keep their charter school open.
Alanda, a third-grader, made that plea to the board’s Finance & Operations Committee Monday night at Celentano School, as it conducted the first public hearing on whether to renew the school’s charter.
Founded by moms four years ago, Elm City Montessori School is now seeking to expand to eighth grade by 2023.
Nineteen supporters — including the school’s teaching faculty and front-desk receptionist, parents who went to Montessori themselves and parents who live in housing projects, even another school principal — all signed up to speak about how the school had benefited the city and changed lives.
They were cheered on by supporters who filled up the cafeteria seats. Many of them wore the school’s forest-green sweatshirt, leading one attendee to call the group “the green wave.”
At the end of the hour-long hearing, the board’s leadership gave positive feedback, adding to the compliments other members gave after a site visit last month.
Jamell Cotto, the board’s vice-president, said he’s “excited” by Elm City Montessori. “It is my hope that my colleagues see the magic that is happening here,” he said.
Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, said he too likes what he’s heard so far, but he’s waiting for the superintendent’s recommendation to make a final decision.
The board will hear additional testimony at a second hearing next Tuesday before it takes a vote. If the application gains local support, it will then go to the State Department of Education, which plans to make a site visit on Nov. 28 before passing on their recommendation to the Connecticut State Board of Education for a final decision.
Split between early childhood classes in Fair Haven and elementary school classes at the new Blake Street location in West Hills, Elm City Montessori is now entering its fourth year with 198 students.
Its classrooms look quite different from those in the district’s traditional schools. There’s no class-wide instruction, no period breaks between subjects, no required textbooks, no standardized tests.
Instead, the shelves of its multi-age classrooms are stocked with prepared activities, essentially “mini-lessons” that students choose to puzzle through, either by themselves or in a small group.
“We have real wood and glass and ceramics. We use real things so students learn to handle them properly, learn to care for all that’s in the classroom. It’s beautiful and breakable,” said Jennifer Richards, a former hydrogeologist who now teaches the primary grades. “Students learn self-control, independence, concentration and self-regulation. They resolve their own problems and conflicts themselves.”
Sometimes, the third-grader Alanda explained, they also made mistakes, like when the glass lunch plates shatter on the floor.
Another teacher added that the model of self-discovery readies students for a rapidly changing world, where entire career fields have yet to be invented.
“It prepares them to tackle those challenges and be successful,” said Susan Clark, a longtime teacher. “The elementary classrooms engage the imaginations of the children and expose them to great big ideas early on: the creation of the universe, how plants and animals and human beings got here; where the alphabet and numbers come from; how everything in the universe is connected and has a purpose. With these big ideas in their growing minds, we then fill in the details, … follow[ing] up with a story or chart or a lesson or research as they search for more information.”
The students have so much fun learning that they come home and “play Montessori,” one dad, Nate Price, added.
Many speakers said they were grateful that the Montessori option is offered within the public school system, without the prohibitive tuition that many private schools charge. Anyone can apply to Elm City Montessori through the same lottery that’s used by the district-run magnet schools.
Rita Torres said that was particularly valuable to her, as a resident who lives in the city’s public housing. She’d first learned about the Montessori model while she was a young mom studying at Gateway Community College. But she quickly found out, “Damn, that’s expensive.”
After winning a spot through the lottery, Torres said her daughter has taught her about healthy eating and mindfulness. “She’s learning the social-emotional skills that, at 35, I still don’t have,” she said. Torres added that she often goes to the teachers to find out how she can help her daughter, asking for refreshers in basic math in the hallways or guidance on how she can educate herself.
“All in all, it’s really a phenomenal place,” she said.
Elm City Montessori is the only school of its kind in Connecticut: a charter school that’s still under the local school board’s supervision.
Unlike “state charters,” public schools (like Achievement First) that get approval and money directly from the state to operate independently, “local charters” fit within the district’s offering of traditional public schools under the Board of Education’s supervision.
In both cases, the schools get to operate on some of their own rules, while receiving public money to operate. The only difference is governance.
Che Dawson, a former school board member who’s now the school’s operations director, said that continuing a local charter like Elm City Montessori would show the district cared about “true choice, in parents deciding what they want for their children.”
Another parent, Miriam Johnson, added that keeping the school open would encourage parent involvement. As Monday’s turnout showed, the school is a “grassroots effort” that’s sustained by the community, she said.
“We don’t sit back. We don’t let the guides and administrators take over our children, leave for seven hours and come back. We are being a part of what we want to see,” she said. “Our school has a great foundation, which is built on heart and commitment and passion. Those are things that we see lacking in our world some days. I ask the board to really consider and give us more time to continue to be that example of what hard work, passion and organization can do.”