Early on, people told Lewis and Clark Charter Montessori School Executive Director Melissa Harbert to stay away from the new program: “You can’t do ‘proper’ Montessori in a public school.” Seven years and hundreds of children later, she and the Lewis and Clark community seem to have proved them wrong.
The story starts the way many charter Montessori schools do: parents in a private children’s house wanted to continue with Montessori, and local elementary programs were too far away and financially out of reach. The Gresham-Barlow school district, on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, was initially cautious and even skeptical, but a district superintendent with children in Montessori and a charter application that was philosophically, operationally, and fiscally solid won them over. Since then, the school has grown from three classrooms serving 82 five and six year olds, to a school and community center, offering eleven Montessori classrooms serving 315 children from preschool through eighth grade, youth and adult community education programs, service projects including meals for homebound seniors, and even a farmer’s market.
It hasn’t been an easy road. LCMCS has faced the challenges common to many charter schools, as well its own unique struggles.
The biggest challenge for most charters is financial. Charters often get only a percentage of the district “per student” allocation. In Oregon, this is 80% for district charters like LCMCS, or $5,852. In theory, that other 20% goes to pay for district services such as transportation and special education, but in practice it looks a lot like running an elementary program for $5,852 when private programs in the area work with $10,000 or more. LCMCS has met this challenge with careful budgeting and passionate fundraising. “You’ve got to be in the fundraising business”, Harbert told me, although it’s not as if there’s money for a development director. The school is an independent non-profit, and runs an auction and an annual fund campaign. Harbert helped LCMCS develop supplemental revenue streams such as before and after school care and community education classes like yoga, knitting, and Spanish. (It doesn’t hurt that these services tie LCMCS into the local community.)
Just last year, the school fought through a fiscal crisis, opening the year (due to a ‘perfect storm’ of building, enrollment, and bureaucratic squalls) with a $170,000 deficit. The school looked hard for a sympathetic banker, and negotiated a loan secured by parent contributions. In January, district enrollment figures cut the per-student allotment by $60,000, to be taken from the current budget. Families and community rallied, another adjustment cut the other way, and the school ended the year $60,000 in the black and with a solid footing for the future, but it was a wild ride. (Incidentally, this year the school expects to close out with $200,000+ in the bank.)
Another common charter school issue is facilities. Typically, charters pay their own rent, rather than occupying a building provided by the district. Consequently, LCMCS has moved around a bit over the years, looking for the right fit at a good price as enrollment grew, at one point operating out of three separate church basements. This year a district reshuffle has opened up space in a former high school, but school leadership needs to continually anticipate of future needs and challenges.
Staffing has been a challenge here as elsewhere. Oregon law requires at least 50% of charter school teachers to be state licensed. Yet licensed, Montessori trained teachers are hard to come by. As more training centers develop cooperative programs with colleges and universities, and public policy efforts to secure state recognition for Montessori diplomas continue to advance, the pool of eligible, qualified staff should continue to grow.
Funding for three and four year olds is a perennial problem. In Oregon, as in most states, funding for charter schools begins with kindergarten, so supporting a full three-to-six year old Children’s House on already limited funding is always a puzzle. Then, with, a charter school, there’s the lottery: there’s often no way to guarantee that those four year olds will get a spot in the school itself. Oregon does allow blended funding for a mixed-age program, so LCMCS has been able to open a full Children’s House serving mostly younger siblings of enrolled children, who will have guaranteed spots when they turn five. (Of course, this complicates relationships with local private Children’s House programs, so it’s important to proceed carefully.) LCMCS continues to explore options for full implementation of the Montessori approach.
Finally, there is assessment. Charter schools, as much as or even more than “regular” public schools, have to answer to whatever accountability model is in place, for fear of losing their charter when it comes up for review. Typically this is some form of annual standardized testing, which is still required by state and federal laws, although the replacement of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) with the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) has loosened the restrictions somewhat. This year, Oregon adopted, and LCMCS deployed, the Smarter Balanced test, a newly developed, seven hour computer administered assessment which hasn’t been popular with Oregon teachers. LCMCS also uses a Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) approach, which briefly samples students’ language and math progress throughout the year,essentially formalizing ongoing classroom observations.
Last year, LCMCS matched district scores on the reading tests, but did poorly on the math assessments. Executive Director Harbert offered some good reasons to take the results with a grain of salt. Even with strong parent education, many parents opt out of the tests. The school has small class cohorts to start with, so one or two low scores in a middle school testing group of six or seven, or a entire cohort with historically low scores, can have a big effect on the numbers. Montessori education is holistic, not test-centered, so there’s not the same emphasis on the ‘third-grade math’ that’s on the third grade test.
Classroom observations indicate that children are acquiring and using math skills meaningfully, and the CBM measurements bear this out. Still, the results merit some attention and examination of classroom practice, and the district wasn’t completely thrilled. But here the clear, consistent philosophical messaging and strong relationships came into play. The Gresham-Barlow school district has wholeheartedly bought into the idea of charters as a true “alternative education” model, Harbert told me, and the reality that enrollment demand is strong and retention is at 95% or above persuaded district leaders that the families enrolled at LCMCS were happy with their children’s education. Taking this as a legitimate measure of educational success, the district remains supportive.
I asked Harbert what she thought others could learn from Lewis and Clark’s struggles and successes. She shook her head: “There’s so much.” But three points emerged.
The first is relationships. Build and maintain good relationships with your families, your district, your community, and your politicians, by paying attention to what they want and working together with them. LCMCS got to where it is with Gresham-Barlow by showing how the school benefits the district, not the other way around.
Next, she said, is a Montessori trained Principal or Head of School. Or if you can’t have that, a trained Educational Director or some such role. And Montessori trained teachers at their levels in every classroom — a challenge, because of the need for state licensure. But if you’re going to have a Montessori school, you need Montessori people.
And finally, know that you can in fact do ‘proper’ Montessori in the public schools. Sometimes you have to crane your neck and squint to see regulations and assessments as an opportunity, not a burden. But Lewis and Clark Montessori Charter School, a 300 child strong pre-K to 8th grade Montessori school and a resource for its local community, is proof that it can be done.