Because Montessori schools are often associated with progressive suburbanites and well-to-do private schools, many people don’t know that Dr. Maria Montessori originally developed her pedagogical approach while running a school for some of the poorest children in Rome. Unfortunately, with the exception of some Montessori magnet schools created as part of desegregation initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s, the Montessori model has been largely relegated to the arena of private schools since it arrived in the United States over 100 years ago. Over the last 20 years, however, the spread of public school choice and charter schools has led to a rapid growth in the number of public Montessori schools.
Only about 500 of the approximately 5,000 Montessori programs in the U.S. are located within public schools. The spread of public school choice has expanded the number of public Montessori programs, from about 130 at the end of the 1980s to around 500 in 2015. Public school choice and charters have allowed the Montessori model to return to its roots of educating low-income students. And because the Montessori model has historically been popular with middle-class families, many districts and public charter school leaders have been using it as a means to create economically and racially integrated public schools. However, as the demand for the model continues to increase, some of these leaders struggle with ensuring that public Montessori schools are serving the children most in need of high quality and different educational options.
The Opportunity Gap And The Growth of Public Montessori Programs
Closing the achievement gap – the disparity in academic outcomes between white, middle-class students and low-income students of color – has been a priority of the education reform movement. However, the opportunity gap– the disparity in learning opportunities, resources and experiences available to low-income students – has a tremendous impact on the achievement gap. Part of the opportunity gap is that many low-income students only have access to the cookie-cutter, factory model of education common in traditional public schools, which doesn’t necessarily meet their needs or interests. When school systems embrace public school choice, it often results in the creation of a variety of public schools with specialized learning models, thereby helping to narrow this aspect of the opportunity gap.
In 2015, around 300 of the U.S.’s approximately 500 public Montessori programs were freestanding schools, and about 200 were specialized programs housed within a non-Montessori school. Yale University’s Dr. Mira Debs researches public Montessori programs and compiled a dataset of these freestanding schools. Nearly 100% are schools of choice that use a lottery system to determine which students get in. And of the 168 freestanding public Montessori schools opened between 2000 and 2015, 82% were public charter schools.
Without public school choice, low-income children in the U.S. didn’t have access to the Montessori model. However, because the model has also proven popular with middle-class families, they now find themselves competing against their more affluent counterparts for seats at open-enrollment public schools.
Overall, public Montessori schools enroll a similar proportion of students of color to that of all U.S. public schools, and, for the 2012-2013 school year (the most recent year for which compiled data is available), they enrolled a higher percentage of African-American students. However, public Montessori schools tend to enroll fewer low-income students than the national average. During that same year, 54% of Montessori students attended a racially diverse school, a school where students of color make up 25 to 75% of the population, compared to 40% of all public school students. However, both district-operated/magnet Montessoris and public charter Montessoris enrolled fewer students of color and low-income students than the districts in which they were located.
As with many public school choice programs, issues of equity and access surround the enrollment processes at Montessori schools. Few school districts nationwide have a universal enrollment system. In districts with universal enrollment, like Washington D.C., Denver and New Orleans, parents fill out one application that includes all district-operated and charter schools as part of a district-wide lottery system. Families rank their top school choices, and an algorithm matches students with available seats.
Many district-operated Montessori schools benefit from being part of a magnet system in which parents can similarly fill out one application for multiple magnet schools. Applications for charters in districts without a universal enrollment system usually have to be mailed or emailed to each individual school. Low-income parents with less “know-how” and free time aren’t as likely to complete multiple applications as affluent parents.
Other barriers to enrollment also exist at public Montessoris — both district and charter — especially for schools located in a district without a universal enrollment procedure. In these districts, some schools state that parents must take a tour prior to applying. Other schools specify that parents must hand deliver, rather than mail, the application. Additionally, many schools don’t provide transportation for students. These regulations often conflict with the day-to-day realities of low-income households.
The Montessori method emphasizes the importance of students enrolling during preschool, but in states that don’t fund preschool, parents must pay tuition for the early Montessori years. While most schools do not give these students priority in the kindergarten lottery, requiring tuition at any point may unintentionally send an unwelcoming message to low-income families. Because of the nature of Montessori education, most schools will not accept students after first grade, even if they have open seats, unless the child has had previously attended a Montessori school. That means there’s a narrow window of time for parents to apply to a Montessori school.
Lottery preferences – determinants that give priority to certain groups of applicants – also influence enrollment demographics. For instance, schools and districts that reserve a certain number of seats for low-income students at choice schools increase the likelihood of having socio-economically diverse student populations at their Montessoris. When choice systems don’t include methods of “controlled choice” as part of the lottery preferences, other preferences can dramatically impact a school’s enrollment. These 300 public Montessori schools have a variety of lottery preferences, including neighborhood preference, school employee preference, founding board member preference, district employee preference, active duty military preference and a “principal’s list” preference, among others, and some of these preferences tip the scale in favor of middle-class students. But the most common enrollment preference by far at both district-operated/magnet and charter schools is a sibling preference.
A sibling preference increases the likelihood of acceptance for applicants who are siblings of currently enrolled students. While a sibling preference ensures that families stay together and makes logistics of transportation easier for parents of all income levels, it also means that once an enrollment trend begins to shift, it’s hard to stem the tide.
Consider the case of Lee Montessori Public Charter School, a diverse-by-design public charter school located in a mixed-income neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The District’s universal enrollment procedure allows for a sibling preference but not a low-income preference. On the Have You Heard podcast, headmaster Chris Pencikowski explained the school’s dilemma.
“We are inundated with middle and upper income families who are interested in a free, quality education for their children – imagine that – and so, if we have five seats in a year, and we’re getting 500 applications from middle and upper income families and 60 from low-income families,” it’s unlikely that the open seats will go to the low-income families, particularly if affluent families already have a child in the school. Despite recruitment efforts, the school has never managed to have above 40% low-income students. However, the school recently received permission to open a new campus. This time, the school leaders are intentionally locating in one of the District’s historically underserved neighborhoods in an effort to revive their mission of bringing the Montessori method to all families.
Appealing to low-income families has also proved difficult for some Montessori schools. Many low-income parents have never heard of the Montessori model, and the method is the opposite of the highly structured model for education – strict rules and lots of test prep – that low-income parents have been told is the pathway to success for their children.
In reality, Montessori schools could and should offset these preconceived ideas about how a rigorous education “looks” by touting their academic prowess. Previous research has shown that students who attend Montessori schools foster higher levels of executive functioning skills like self-discipline, autonomy over learning, deep focus, critical reasoning and problem solving. Other studies have shown that students who attended Montessori elementary schools significantly outperformed peer groups on high school exams. Although much of the current research on Montessori schools fails to disaggregate by race and income, a recent study shows promising results for elementary African-American students in public Montessori magnet programs when compared with both their peers at traditional public schools and those in other magnet programs.
Although more research is needed, the Montessori method may yet be shown to help to close the achievement gap. Nevertheless, public school choice has already helped in closing the opportunity gap by making Montessori education an option for low-income families.