As Elm City Montessori faces an up-or-down vote on its continued existence next month, a tour of the school appears to have won over skeptics on the New Haven Board of Education.
School board members went on a fact-finding mission Wednesday morning to the charter school’s new Blake Street campus, where they met the board of trustees, observed classes and questioned staff. Elm City Montessori is asking to expand to eighth grade by 2023.
By the end of the two-hour visit, a majority of the board members expressed a willingness to extend the school’s charter, although they cautioned that the process of hearing public input is just beginning.
The members’ enthusiasm seemed to flip earlier worries about the budget. In September, right after the school board took tough votes to close its $19.4 million budget deficit by shuttering schools and laying off teachers, members of the Finance & Operations Committee sent up red flags over the district’s $614,709 annual payment to Elm City Montessori. a school whose charter is overseen by the city, not the state.
Some outstanding budgetary questions remain, particularly over the size of the charter’s administration. But board members suggested those could be addressed while letting the school grow.
The Board of Education plans to hold two hearings with Elm City Montessori parents, on Nov. 5 and Nov. 13, before it makes a final decision. The state will then make a site visit on Nov. 28, before the Connecticut State Board of Education decides whether it too believes the school’s charter should be extended.
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.
Compared to most public schools in New Haven, the charter is racially integrated: 44 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic, 24 percent white and 4 percent multiracial. Just under 7 percent of the students require special education.
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 (such as 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 rather than district rules, while receiving public money to operate.
Students enter the school through the same lottery as the magnet schools use. Most of the school’s staff joins the unions for teachers and principals.
Elm City Montessori receives most of its funding directly from the district. The amount is calculated based on the average amount that New Haven’s traditional schools received per pupil two years ago, minus in-kind support for rent and transportation. The school supplements with grants and donations.
Founded By Moms
In late 2012, a group of moms who were frustrated by the lack of early childhood options in New Haven applied to open a PreK-3 school. They said they envisioned child-centered learning in a racially and economically diverse environment. New Haven’s Board of Education and the State Department of Education both gave Elm City Montessori the go-ahead.
The school opened in the fall of 2014.
The Montessori model has been around for more than a century. The Italian physician Maria Montessori started the first school in 1907, based on her observations about how children teach themselves in a structured environment. Through prepared activities, kids of multiple ages discover how to puzzle out problems, either on their own or in a small group in the space they pick.
“The vision of Montessori is one that focuses on the whole child, on really meeting children where they are,” said Julia Webb, the school’s principal. “A lot of education models, especially recently, are really about limiting children’s choices. This school is about providing so many choices, so many opportunities for children to explore and find themselves: both in terms of social-emotional development [as well as] in the curiosity of algebraic equations or the beauty of the alphabet. Everything is in front of them.”
That means the classrooms end up looking a little different, Webb said. Unlike in traditional learning environments, there is no class-wide instruction, no breaks between subjects, no textbooks, and no standardized tests. In a Montessori school, “I hope you see joy,” she added. “It’s something I want to provide for all our children: this joy in learning.”
New Haven did once try out a Montessori experiment within a traditional school. Administrators at the time concluded the method was too costly because the classrooms need trained teachers and tactile equipment.
Multiple faculty members said they joined Elm City Montessori because they want to make the model available within the public school systems, rather than limiting access to those who can afford private tuition.
“Montessori can be very elitist, and that’s why I was so excited to come to a public Montessori school,” said Amelia Sherwood, the school’s dean, who leads anti-bias and anti-racism trainings. “I want [our children] to see themselves in the instruction. All of our white teachers know they are very white, and their population is very black and brown. They own that and are working within themselves to own their biases.”
Oak & Gingko
Several Board of Education members said the visit Wednesday was their first experience with the Montessori model. Afterwards, they gushed about the students’ eagerness to learn and the faculty’s willingness to confront racial bias head-on.
Five board members and two administrators arrived at the school’s Blake Street campus around 9 a.m. After a brief talk with the charter school’s board members, they were sent off to classrooms to observe.
In the Oak Room, students sat in a wide circle on a rug, learning about mindfulness. Schools Superintendent Carol Birks pulled up a chair and snapped a picture on her phone.
The instructor, James Erard, asked why the class thought they did an activity together every morning. One student answered that it helps him transition from the hubbub of home and buses into learning. Another said it helped him “not be so crazy” and get his work done. Erard eventually proposed the word “focus.” “That’s what I was thinking!” someone said.
Erard asked a student to grab a chime. Then he told them to close their eyes, straighten their backs and see how long they could hear its resonating echo. Birks closed her eyes too and waited for the gong.
Next door, in the Gingko Room, two first-graders, Theo Price and Estela Rivera, had written an addition problem that ran several feet long on a piece of ticker tape, with one random, single-digit number after another. With that as their guide, they both weaved a chain of multicolored beads together into a “golden snake” representing the total. The chain had grown so large that looped around itself. “And we’re not even finished!” Rivera exclaimed.
After they explained their project to a reporter, Price asked questions about how newspapers worked and which other visitors were in his class. Unprompted, he said he’d noticed that the mayor was in the school too. “I heard he’s deciding whether to close the school or not,” he said. “I hope he does not.”
Over in another corner of the room, one of the teachers, Susan Clark, quizzed students about human needs, asking them to distinguish between “material” needs like shelter and food and “spiritual” needs like art and music. She showed them pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house, a potter’s wheel (that one student guessed was dough), and a bus decked out in lights.
When the noises got too loud in the Gingko Room, one of the students walked to the door and flicked off the lights for 30 seconds. Everyone hushed to a whisper, even the visitors, and once the lights came back on, the volume stayed lower.
All the board members had positive things to say about Elm City Montessori as they reflected on the visit.
“If it looks like I’m filled with joy, it’s because I am,” school board member Ed Joyner said after returning to a conference room to talk business with the school’s administrators.
Later, Joyner said he found the faculty “highly energized” and “knowledgeable.” Fellow board member Jamell Cotto said he believes it is important for the Montessori model to be available in a public school, which he said “really levels the playing field.” Board member Joe Rodriguez said he was impressed by the level of parent and student engagement. And board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said she appreciated how “intentionally” the school addressed racial bias.
Before voting on whether to approve the expansion to middle school, board members have asked more information about the school’s finances and the city’s demographics.
One question: Whether the executive director position is necessary, on top of a principal. Executive Director Eliza Halsey said that dual leadership is common for several of the city’s charters, including Common Ground High School and Booker T. Washington Academy. She said it allows the principal to focus on core instruction, while she fills out reports on the school’s academics, manages payroll for non-district employees, and fundraises to support broader work in the community, like its anti-racism training. She added that her salary is paid independently of district funds.
Another question: Whether the district needs more desks at those grades. Halsey said that the school will grow to accommodate its current students already at Elm City Montessori, not to siphon more away from other schools.
Throughout New Haven, demand is growing for spots at charter schools, with wait lists that can run hundreds of students long. At the last count, all of the city’s charters enrolled nearly 2,700 students.
Opponents argue that charter schools result in a two-tiered education system by attracting students with proactive parents and rejecting kids with behavioral problems.
During a public job interview almost a year ago, Superintendent Birks touched off a controversy by saying that charters give parents “other choice opportunities” and help traditional schools identify “promising practices.”
“I say we shouldn’t fight charter schools,” Birks said at the time. “We should learn from them.”