Diversity in Public Montessori:
Mira Debs, Yale Sociology of Education Ph.D. candidate and founder of Montessori for Social Justice, presented a chapter of her dissertation at the recent 2016 Montessori for Social Justice Conference: Writing the History of Public Montessori. The takeaway? It’s a little more complicated than you might think.
Debs summarized 450 hours of fieldwork, 79 interviews with parents, policy makers, and Montessori educators, thousands of newspaper articles, and an original database of public Montessori schools going back to 1912, all in a 90 minute talk, so there will be much more in her published thesis, which is expected later this year. Many stories remain to be told, and the Montessori community is invited to contribute their own (details at the bottom of this piece). Still, some intriguing and unexpected highlights emerged.
Montessori has had an elite reputation in the U.S. and globally, perpetuated by the media and at times by Montessorians themselves, as education for mostly affluent, mostly White* families. The story we’ve told goes something like this: Montessori started out serving special needs children in an asylum and working poor families in San Lorenzo, but quickly became a private school experience for families of means. When Montessori returned to the U.S. in the early 1960s, it was taken up by white suburban families with stay-at-home moms, and has only slowly made inroads into public schools and communities of color.
It turns out that, like a lot of things, there’s a story we don’t know so well. And like a lot of those stories, it takes place at the margins, among the disenfranchised. U.S. Montessori has had diversity all along, and small programs run by and serving communities of color have always been part of the picture, but poorly documented until now.
From her detailed research, Debs highlighted five programs in her talk. Among the earliest was Boston’s Montessori Family Center, founded by Mae-Arlene Gadpaille, a Black woman who kept the program open mostly through her own fundraising from the 1960s until she retired in 1990. Beginning a few years later, Malcolm X Montessori, named for the founder’s cousin, operated in Compton (Los Angeles) for several years in the late 1960s.
In 1970, a Black Texas plumber and cab driver, Samuel Tasby, was the lead plaintiff in the pivotal Dallas Independent School District desegregation lawsuit, and later sued the district (unsuccessfully) to keep his children’s Montessori school, by that time a highly desired program, from moving across town. In 1992, Black PTA leader Luwannia Johnson-Martin raised $50,000 to save Building Blocks Montessori, Hartford, Connecticut’s first elementary urban-suburban magnet school, which went on to become today’s Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) Montessori Magnet School.
Perhaps most influential was Latina education leader Martha Urisote, considered by many the mother of public Montessori in Denver, Colorado. In 1985, as principal of Mitchell Elementary, Urisote helped bring Denver public schools into federal desegregation compliance by converting the school into Mitchell Montessori (today, Denison Montessori), and the district now supports five public Montessori programs. Urioste went on to found Family Star Montessori, a pioneering birth to three program now serving more than 300 children annually.
So what does public Montessori look like today, in its racial and socioeconomic diversity? Again, Debs’ exhaustive research offers a nuanced answer: it’s complicated, and not always what you might expect.
Public Montessori programs got started in the mid-1960s, and have grown to about 500 in operation today (out of about 5,000 Montessori schools in all). For comparison, there are about 50,000 public schools in the U.S., so Montessori, while it is the single largest alternative pedagogy in use, still reaches about 1% of public school children.
Charter schools represent about a third of these schools, with the remaining two-thirds split evenly between whole-school district or magnet programs, and programs within a district or magnet school. (It’s often hard to tell exactly which of these two categories a school falls into, as organizational structures vary widely.) Montessori programs are often easier to fully implement in charters, but this structure brings issues of its own, as Debs’ research shows.
As for diversity, you can think about it several ways. Looking first at the students, more than half in public Montessori are non-White, and Black and multi-racial students are more prevalent than national averages. On the other hand, Latino and Asian students, as well as Whites, are under-represented. Over all, non-Montessori public schools are whiter, poorer and a bit more Latino than Montessori publics, but the Montessori publics serve a good many more Black children.
Looking at the schools themselves, public Montessori programs are a good deal more diverse than public schools as a whole, with 40% more students attending high diversity schools rather than mostly White schools.
When you look directly at Black and Latino public Montessori students, they are more likely to attend racially diverse schools than public school students as a whole, but many do attend racially isolated schools, and Blacks experience less diversity.
When you compare charters on the one hand to districts and magnets on the other, more subtleties emerge. District and magnet schools were often created to meet desegregation goals, and are often measured against that standard. Charters are typically created to offer a choice of pedagogy, and are often measured (and have their charters renewed or denied) on the basis of test scores. These factors seem to drive diversity, as charters are generally a good deal less racially and socioeconomically diverse than district and magnets.
But maybe the charters are just in more rural or whiter areas to start with? It’s also possible to compare the composition of public Montessori schools to their surrounding districts. Here, even though public Montessori programs are generally more diverse than public schools overall, Debs found that roughly one-third of them are more racially and economically diverse than their surrounding districts, while roughly two-thirds are less diverse. And, about 10% of each type are at the extreme on both measures, between 40% and 80% less diverse than their surrounding districts.
So the takeaway is that public Montessori schools are generally more racially diverse than public schools overall, but also that public Montessori schools overall, and charters in particular, don’t enroll as many non-White and poor children as they could. This suggests that children poverty, and children of color, have barriers to access to public Montessori. Of course, these factors can come into conflict. Overall, if access improves, diversity is likely to go down, unless the influx of children goes mostly into low-diversity programs, which seems unlikely. Still, it’s worth asking what those barriers might be, and how they might be addressed.
Generally, public Montessori schools are “schools of choice” — parents apply for the charter lottery or the magnet program, or make a similar school- or district-level choice. For magnet schools, the intention may have been explicitly to attract White children for desegregation purposes, creating more diversity but serving fewer local children of color. For other choice schools, the process of choice itself can be a barrier, requiring higher levels of literacy, social capital, and time, among other resources, which may not be as prevalent in poor and non-White communities. Programs may not offer transportation, free lunch, or before and after school care, which can rule them out for families with limited resources. Some charter schools can give preferential enrollment to families enrolled in tuition-based preschools, or with prior Montessori experience,
Another factor is the diversity of demand for Montessori programs. If better-eduacted White families with more time on their hands choose Montessori, there will be more “white ping pong balls” in the lottery, as some researchers have put it. And as choice schools become whiter, families of color may be less inclined to seek them out, reinforcing the effect. In some cases, these families have actively resisted Montessori public programs, at times protesting a perceived lack of academic rigor they feel will leave their children disadvantaged, or a removal of choice.
Whatever the reasons, the story of the last ten years is on this slide: the numbers of White, Latino, and free-and-reduced-lunch (FRL) students have grown by about 50%, while Black enrollment has been essentially flat.
Debs offered a number of measures that could be taken to improve access and maintain diversity:
- Provide full-day and summer programming, before and after care, transportation, and nutrition support
- Simplify, weight, and broaden lottery procedures
- Improve outreach, using multiple languages and community networks and institutions
- Publicize Montessori’s strength with English Language Learners and special needs students, its rich curriculum support for cultural diversity, and its strong academic outcomes
- Recruit and support culturally diverse students and families, represent diversity in curriculum materials, hire diverse staff, and support diversity in teacher training
- Advocate for early childhood education funding beginning as young as possible
- Advocate for affordable, income diverse urban and housing planning
- Advocate for federal, state, and local policy to promote racially and socioeconomically diverse schools
These stories, this analysis, and these recommendations are really just “the tip of the iceberg”, Debs told me. There’s much more in her dissertation, of which this was just one chapter, and which she expects to see published as a book after her thesis defense later this year. And Debs is actively seeking Montessori community involvement in her Public Montessori/Expanding Montessori Access Oral History Project. Anyone with a story to tell can click on the link (or go here: goo.gl/VvgaHD), answer the questions themselves or interview someone else, and send them back to become part of the research project.
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.