Montessori and Native American Education
Fourteen years ago, in Portland, Oregon, a visionary native American education leader put U.S. Department of Education Title VII Indian Education funding together with Montessori education to create the Native Montessori Project — as far as MontessoriPublic can tell, the only Title VII Montessori program in the country.*
In 2002, Norinne Smokey-Smith, then Program Director of Indian Education for Portland Public Schools, had children in a local private Montessori Children’s House. Like so many Montessori parents, she wanted this model available for more children, and she saw a natural synergy between the inherent respect and interconnectedness of the Montessori approach and native American ways of teaching and learning.
So Smokey-Smith set out to make it happen. She got a demonstration grant written for the first few years. The design included a number features which supported early success:
- Teachers were AMI trained, and the program sought AMI recognition, which was one way to ensure high-fidelity Montessori, including a trained guide and a full three-to-six age range.
- Title VII funding supported culturally relevant curriculum, so family elders were involved and trust was built with the community.
- A parent education requirement supported families in understanding and implementing Montessori principles at home.
- Before and after school care were offered to support working families.
- Budgeting allowed for nutrition support and practical life materials.
- Eligibility was not income-tested, so the community mixed children in poverty with relatively less challenged children.
The program was quite successful for several years, as reported in 2005 in Indian Country News, and alumni now graduating from high school and their families haven’t forgotten. In an Grant High School Magazine article, alumnus Rosey Sams, now a sophomore, looks back:
Rosey Sams vividly remembers her time in the program. The students were taught dancing, drumming, storytelling and singing. They learned to be independent, to self regulate and to listen.
“The ideals and principles of the Montessori school…had the same ideals and values and education as you would on an Indian reservation,” Chuck Sams says. “You learn through interaction…in a group setting that is not competitive in nature.”
“It was a strong academic start, but it was also culturally rich – culturally welcoming,” Kitchen says. “I think the more that we can do as a school district or as a classroom to recognize culture as a strength and nurture that, then more Native students will feel like they’re welcomed, and they can be who they are.”
When the money runs out
After the demonstration grant ran out, funding was harder to come by. Indian Education Services kept it going for a few years, piecing things together with some district money, Title I (for children in poverty) grants, and Native American literacy funding. But when the recession hit, the money ran out, and 2008-2009 was the last year of the program. The teacher was let go, the children moved on to other programs (or none at all), and the Montessori materials were packed away into a closet.
And there they sat. Not for lack of effort and desire, it should be said. Karen Kitchen kept coming back to the district, looking for ways to get the program started again. But 2009 and after were tough years in Portland public schools, and no money was found.
Native Montessori Reborn
Then, in 2014, Kitchen’s persistence paid off. The closet full of materials was opened, dusted off, and put back into a classroom, and the Native Montessori Project was re-launched in the fall of that year.
But the structure of the new program wasn’t quite the same the second time around. Some critical differences:
- The first year teacher had a tribal affiliation, but no Montessori training. The local Montessori community offered support, but without formal teacher preparation, it’s hard to successfully implement Montessori.
- Title VII (Indian Education) and Title I (low income students) funding supports the program, so families must meet income requirements. Instead of a mixed-income class, the program serves exclusively high-need children.
- Before and after school care is not part of the package this time around.
- The program enrolls city-wide, without a neighborhood base, so challenges of community involvement, transportation, attendance, etc., must be met.
- For now, the program serves three and four year olds. At kindergarten, they enter the conventional public school system.
Still, a new, AMS trained primary guide, Carrie Brown, is doing the best she can in challenging circumstances. The classroom looks like a Montessori classroom, and, it clearly embodies Native American traditions. The shelves hold practical life activities and Montessori didactic materials (many of which must be twelve years old or more, although the local Montessori community has helped out). And there’s a tipi, button blankets, a wooden loon to be polished, beautiful hand-sewn garments for traditional celebrations, and language work that reflects the native culture. Ms. Brown has to balance district, state, Indian Education, and Montessori priorities in her environment, and she works hard to build a program that will serve these children and survive in the public school world.
I asked Carrie what she thought it was important for people to know about the program. She had two messages:
First, she expressed deep appreciation for Portland Public Schools’ support of early childhood education for indigenous children, and for choosing Montessori, which supports their culture, “with an emphasis on interconnectedness, learning through observation or role modeling, and learning with concrete materials.”
Second, and more personally, she expressed a strong feeling that we owe it to our indigenous children to provide them with this environment and approach, and to persevere in the hard work of supporting a program like this one. We as a nation have made a lot of promises to native people, and the children deserve to have this one kept. With that kind of passion and commitment like that, the program may yet thrive and prosper.
Native Montessori Project Photo Gallery
* The U.S. Department of Education provides funding for indigenous people’s education under Title VI of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which governs federal education spending and policy. The law’s formal name is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed in 1965 and reauthorize every 10 years. ESSA, passed in 2015, replaces the previous revision, known as No Child Left Behind (NLCB), which covered Native American education under Title VII, and many programs still use “Title VII” terminology.