According to Meyer’s new Principal, Jennifer Whittington, the district has a history of connection and involvement with its community and an interest in providing choices for children and families. Current “specialty school” offerings include a gifted program, an International Baccalaureate (IB) option, a technology school, and an Early Childhood Special Education program. “What the community wanted next,” Whittington said, “was Montessori.”
Interest in a Montessori program had been growing for several years. The Phoenix-Tempe area is home to more than a dozen public programs and a smaller number of private Montessori schools, so the model is familiar. A $165 million bond measure passed in November provided funding to remodel Meyer Elementary as Meyer Montessori. In early March, families camped out overnight to sign up for enrollment, and one Montessori parent was interviewed on local television.
Meyer seems to be off to a great start, avoiding some common pitfalls and putting essential pieces in place to support full implementation. The school will open with three classrooms of 26 three to six year olds, serving three and four year olds at a subsidized tuition of $400 per month for full days. They have been able to hire AMS and AMI trained teachers who already have state licenses, and will staff the rooms with assistants as well. Whittington and the school board are committed to the integrity of the Montessori program “We did our research. We visited private and public Montessori schools, and we know that if we want this program to work, we need to do it right,” she said. She stands firm on being “strictly Montessori,” pushing back on district curriculum, reading and math books, etc. — “really, anything requiring direct instruction.” Still, she says, “We’re very lucky—as a public school, we have all the support we need.”
Tempe District 3 is not an affluent district. 16 of its 22 schools receive Title I funding, and most have a Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) rate of 70% or more (the statewide average was 58%; 2014 data). Whittington said she expects to have “a really good mix of kids” across race and income. Asked about the $400 fee for three and four year olds, she acknowledged the cost, but pointed out that $400 is a good deal less than local Montessori or even daycare options, and she suggested that the while the district doesn’t currently offer scholarships, it would probably try to find a way to work with a family that found the fee a serious barrier. Meyer is a choice school, with first priority going to families inside the local boundary. This should help the school look like the neighborhood it sits in.
As for the future, the program is expected to grow by a grade each year, starting with 1st grade in 2018. The plan would be to begin with next year’s rising six-year old kindergarteners. Whittington would consider filling out the elementary with children with prior Montessori experience, but she advocated a cautious approach. “Montessori isn’t just a way of learning, but a way of life,” she said. “It prepares children to be independent, high-level thinkers. They’re risk-takers, even—they’re comfortable with trial and error. You can’t just a plop an older child in there and expect them to succeed.”