Progressive Portland, Oregon: you think of food carts, public transport, and bearded hipsters swilling hand-roasted artisanal coffee in the morning and quirky microbrews at night.
But out on the northeast edge of Portland (actually part of neighboring Gresham), you’ll find Rockwood, with the highest poverty levels in the county—quite a different vision from what you see on the postcards. Tucked away in Rockwood, you’ll find Alder Elementary, a Title I K-5 school serving a diverse, struggling population:
- 95% eligible for free and reduced lunch
- 75% English language learners, with 27 languages spoken in the school
- 20% without permanent housing (homeless or in temporary situations)
And around a corner, down a hall in Alder, in 600 square feet of converted storage, you’ll find Alder Montessori — a collaborative project among I Have a Dream Oregon, Reynolds School District, and Montessori Northwest, Portland’s AMI teacher training center. Here you’ll see 20 three and four year olds from a neighborhood that evokes poverty stricken San Lorenzo in 1907, where Montessori got its start, spooning, sweeping, counting, tracing letters, chattering in Spanish, English, with a sprinkling of Russian and Somali, and looking for all the world like a Montessori classroom. The class is led by veteran bilingual, native Puerto Rican, primary trained guide Maria Garcia, and a bilingual, native Mexican, assistant, Janet Dominguez-Ortiz, and supported by a Family Outreach Co-Ordinator, Laura Bolanos, and a visionary yet down-to-earth Principal, Rob Stewart (the first Alder principal in five years to stay more than a year). The program is just five months old, but children and families are already seeing changes and growth they never imagined possible.
So how does something like this happen? It goes back to two visionary partners: Montessori Northwest and I Have a Dream Oregon.
I Have A Dream Oregon, an affiliate of the national “I Have a Dream” Foundation, founded in 1990 to help low-income students succeed in school, college and career, started out following the national “Dreamer Class” model, adopting a single 3rd grade class in a low-income school and supporting them through college, helping 900 children succeed over 25 years. In 2010, the foundation expanded its reach with the “Dreamer School” model, providing this support for an entire school and reaching 300 to 3,000 children per year. Alder is the first Dreamer School in the nation.
The work I Have a Dream does at Alder is comprehensive and inspiring. A vision of college and career is embedded in every aspect of student life. Each class, from kindergarten on up, is identified by their anticipated college graduation year: Class of 2030. Class of 2031. Class of 2032, on the kindergarten classroom door. Posters, signs, and student artwork lining the halls emphasize college and career paths. Classes, from kindergarten up, take regular field trips to Portland area college campuses. I’ll admit, some of this feels a little artificial when you see it. But if no-one in your family, no-one you know, has ever set foot on a college campus or put on a lab coat or a three-piece suit to go to work, it’s probably pretty powerful.
Something else I Have a Dream does really well is to bring partners on board with their work. More than 70 partners support their work at Alder and elsewhere, typically paying their own way. And this is where Montessori comes in.
Early on, I Have a Dream Oregon knew it needed an early childhood education (ECE) component, and the Alder kindergarten teachers backed this up: young children with traumatic experiences were arriving in kindergarten two or three years behind what the school system expected. I Have a Dream convened early childhood experts to choose a “best-in-class” ECE model, and a consensus quickly emerged for constructivist programs such as Reggio Emilia and Montessori. Montessori Northwest brought teacher training, institutional support, and financial commitment to the table, and, as I Have a Dream Oregon Executive Director Mark Langseth put it, “by the second meeting, I knew we had to do this.” Montessori Northwest worked with its own network of partners to provide funding for the first three years while developing a sustainable funding stream, and I Have a Dream worked with the school district to provide building renovations, transportation, nutrition, and administrative support.
And looking ahead? Jennifer Davidson, Executive Director at Montessori Northwest, said she wants to “go slow, and go carefully”. Extending the class to include five year olds bumps up against kindergarten enrollment and collective bargaining, and both Jennifer and Mark are keen to get the Alder elementary school on board. But they both think it’s possible — and that it’s the children emerging from the Montessori classroom who will win people over. Five year olds in September 2016, a second classroom in 2017, and beyond that, who knows?
I toured the classroom before it opened, in a group of educators, journalists, and well-wishers, and even though I’ve seen plenty of Montessori classrooms, I have to say I got a little choked up. I leaned in to Maria, away from the crowd, and whispered:
—The people in this building really have no idea what’s about to happen in here.
—No, they don’t.
Later Maria told me that some people in the building looked around the room and worried that the children would tear the place up. (Of course, all the materials were out on display—many would be put away before the first day.) And it’s not that they don’t get it: Principal Rob Stewart travelled to Lumin Education in the poorest part of Dallas, Texas, where Montessori has been changing lives since 1978, and came back saying, we can do this here. But he also knows his school population, and the poverty-driven challenges of impulsivity and self-regulation his children experience.
I ran into Maria again a few weeks later. Again, I leaned in:
—So, did they tear the place up?
And she said, with a smile:
—No. No, they did not.
More photos from my visit to Alder: