The 2016 Montessori for Social Justice Conference was held at the John M. Tobin Montessori School, a Cambridge Public Schools Montessori school serving nearly 300 children from three years old through fifth grade, and the first district level (non-magnet) public Montessori school to receive full AMS accreditation (in February 2015). The story of how Tobin got to be a Montessori school in the first place illuminates the intersecting themes of social justice, diversity, and public Montessori that permeated the Conference.
The school, named for John M. Tobin, Cambridge Superintendent of Public Schools from the early 1930s through 1967, was built in 1971 — a sprawling brutalist fortress designed by Pietro Belluschi. At that time, Cambridge was working through a series of voluntary approaches to desegregation under the impetus of Massachusetts’ pioneering 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, which deemed any school with more than 50% minority students “racially imbalanced” and required districts to desegregate. Alarmed by the political and social turmoil sparked by court-ordered busing in adjacent Boston, Cambridge school leaders started with magnet schools, and moved to boundary redrawing and involuntary transfers, but without much success. In 1979, under the guidance of Harvard Education School professor and desegregation pioneer Charles V. Willie and Michael Alves, head of the Massachusetts Department of Education Desegregation Office, Cambridge began to implement what became known as Controlled Choice, a district-wide plan balancing parental choice and diversity targets that has since been widely adopted and deployed in school districts from Miami to San Francisco, and has been considered in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Under Cambridge Controlled Choice, neighborhood schools were abolished, and all fifteen elementary schools in Cambridge were made available to all students, based on a lottery program weighted to equalize minority representation across schools. Magnet programs were established in under-selected schools to increase their desirability, and the program was widely regarded as successful. In 2001, the diversity measures were expanded to include socio-economic status as reflected in free and reduced lunch eligibility.
By 2005, Tobin Elementary School (not yet Montessori) was one of the least frequently chosen schools in the system. A new Superintendent of Schools, Thomas D. Fowler-Finn, had arrived from his position as Superintendent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he had overseen Bunche Montessori School, which had been a Montessori magnet school since 1991 and which, in 2003, became the first district Montessori school to achieve AMS accreditation (Tobin in 2015 being the first such non-magnet school). With support and guidance from Connie Murphy, a former Fort Wayne public Montessori school principal, past AMS Board President, and Montessori consultant, Fowler-Finn proposed converting Tobin to Montessori, and in 2007 four Children’s House classrooms were opened.
Today, Tobin has become a highly popular choice for Cambridge families, so the school has a long waiting list and easily meets city-wide diversity targets. In Cambridge, public school begins at four years old, and from the beginning Tobin stretched its budget to include three year-olds, offering full mixed-age three-to-six Children’s Houses. These youngest children have a half-day Montessori program, which created a diversity challenge for working families who needed full-day care, so the school added “Montessori-flavored” child care available in the afternoons, with care-givers supported by Montessori professional development. Those first classes in 2007 necessarily included children without previous Montessori, but after the first year, enrollment was grown primarily at the entry level, moving the Montessori program up year by year. Since middle school begins at sixth grade in Cambridge, the upper elementaries are fourth and fifth grade only, which is reflected in a special accommodation to the AMS accreditation.
Cambridge’s generous per-student funding (about $28,000) also allowed for a Montessori Resource Teacher as part of the instructional support team — Erin Gutierrez, a state licensed, AMS trained Primary, Lower, and Upper Elementary guide, who supports teachers and administration in Montessori implementation and adaptation to public school requirements. I spoke with Gutierrez and Tobin principal Jaime Frost about the successes and challenges the school has experienced.
Both Gutierrez and Frost spoke of Montessori fidelity as a strength of the program. “You have to have the full three to six range”, Gutierrez said. (Adding the sixth years to the upper elementaries is a goal, they told me, although it would be heavy lift in the current CPS climate, and battles have to be picked.) For young children, before Tobin converted to Montessori, just 40% of the exiting kindergartners were at grade level in writing, well below CPS’ high expectations. Now, that number is up to 99%. These results have brought visiting colleagues, principals, and assistant superintendents who have marveled at the literacy and independence of the Montessori children.
Strong assessment results have earned Tobin some independence and autonomy over time. For example, after showing high levels of achievement in math, for example, Tobin was granted the flexibility to break down the assessment into small pieces which could be given individually, as a child has mastered a particular skill, rather than testing all the third grades at once. But, Frost reminded me, assessments matter, and constant vigilance is essential. “If our kids fail, we cold lose our autonomy and funding.”
Gutierrez picked out reading and writing instruction as an area of challenge Tobin has focused on. In her experience with Montessori teachers from various trainings, she said, there are some elements of best practice in reading and writing that aren’t always acknowledged in Montessori teacher preparation. (No doubt some Montessori teacher trainers would disagree.) Frost was the literacy coach at the inception of the program, and she and Gutierrez talked about how they worked hard to incorporate these practices (such as guided reading, leveled readers, and “Talking, Drawing, Writing” ) into classrooms and to integrate them with the Montessori philosophy.
Both Frost and Gutierrez acknowledged that the school has gone through ten years of growing pains, but their pride in their strong, successful and diverse program, as well as the recent AMS accreditation, was evident. They emphasized the importance of staying thoughtful, and being mindful and supportive of teachers. “It’s a demanding job” said Frost, “but in the end, it’s worth it.”