Penfield Children’s Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a long-standing program for children with developmental delays and other special needs, is opening Penfield Montessori Academy, a Montessori charter school serving special needs and neighborhood children, starting with Children’s House but with plans to grow through 8th grade
This is a new and exciting chapter in the rich and convoluted history of public Montessori in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the story reaches all the way back to the beginning of that history in 1967, intersecting with the lives of prominent Montessorians and historical figures along the way.
The Penfield in all this is Wilder Penfield, an American-born Canadian neurosurgeon born in 1891 who did pioneering work in the 1920s through the 1960s in brain surgery, brain function mapping, epilepsy, hallucinations, déjà vu, and brain plasticity in children. (Penfield may be best known in popular culture for the “Penfield homunculus”, which maps areas of the brain to parts of the body.) In 1966, Penfield’s daughter, Priscilla Penfield Chester, living in Milwaukee, was approached by a friend with a child who had suffered a brain injury. Penfield Chester took the case to her father, who pointed her towards Montessori, whose groundbreaking work with developmentally disabled children in Rome in 1900 would have been well known to Penfield.
Penfield Chester went to Rome herself to visit the site of the first Montessori school, the Casa dei Bambini on Via dei Marsi, and on her return to Milwaukee she helped found the Via Marsi Society, and opened the Via Marsi Montessori School on 24th and Cherry. The late Hildegard Solzbacher, one of the first Association Montessori Internationale teacher trainers, founder of the first Montessori school in Milwaukee in 1961 (Milwaukee Montessori School), and founding mother of Milwaukee’s public Montessori program in 1973, trained the teachers. John Osterkorn, later president of AMI-USA, was the first head of school.
In 1972, the Urban Day School (a tuition-free community school serving minority and low-income children) joined Via Marsi in the building on Cherry Street, and in 1974, Via Marsi moved to a new location on 26th and re-named itself as the Penfield Children’s Center. According to Phil Dosmann, another prominent figure in the history of Milwaukee public Montessori, the Montessori component of the program faded over time. After their last Montessori classroom closed in the 80s, Dosmann bought the materials for ten cents on the dollar for MacDowell Montessori, now a thriving public program serving children from ages three though eighteen.
Penfield Children’s Center went on to become a highly regarded center for children with and without special needs, offering on-site and in-home programs and services for infants and young children including education, therapy services and family programs, serving 1500 minority and poverty-impacted children every year. Over the last few years, however, Penfield has been hearing from the families it serves that they don’t want to leave as their children reach school age, and that they wished there was a way the developmentally appropriate, supportive, family-centered care they were getting at Penfield could continue.
So Penfield decided to open a school. And given their history and their developmentally centered approach, they knew they had to look to Montessori. They did their homework and found that the research supported the idea. Montessori had begun her work with just the population they serve: first with the developmentally delayed children of the Orthophrenic School, and then with children in poverty in the first Casa. They saw the successes Montessori was having in other urban areas, and with special needs students, and they knew they had a fit.
With a planning grant from the Walton Family Foundation, Penfield developed a charter proposal with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and was looking at a vacant Milwaukee Public Schools building in January of this year. But in April, the Urban Day School, still on Cherry Street, announced that it would close at the end of the year, and in a poetic turn, Penfield Montessori Academy will be housed in the building where Via Marsi began fifty years ago.
Penfield Montessori Academy will open as an inclusive program with three Children’s House classes of three, four, and five-year olds (K3-K5 in early childhood education terms), of whom 30% to 40% are expected to have disabilities. Charter school funding in Wisconsin begins at four years old, but Penfield recognized serving three-year-olds as essential to full Montessori implementation as well as to early intervention, so they will be stretching those dollars to cover the additional year. “We’re including K3 because we believe in it”, Penfield Vice President of Communications and Development Jason Parry told me. Enrollment is by lottery, which is already heavily subscribed, and a fourth class will be added if necessary. The school plans to grow by a grade level each year to serve 300 children from K3 through 8th grade by 2024.
Sabrina Claude, a 2005 Teach For America alum who has spent ten years in Atlanta and Indianapolis as a teacher, team leader, and assistant principal in Title I schools, is coming on board as Head of School. She emphasized three “pillars” of the school: education, health and wellness, and family engagement. She sees Penfield’s mission as comprehensive and extending beyond the classroom, into the community.
Education is a social justice issue for Claude, who spoke passionately about setting high expectations for very high-need, low-performing students in her previous work. Montessori is new for her, but she is taking the AMI Assistants Course and working closely with the AMI Montessori Institute of Milwaukee and veteran Milwaukee Montessorian Phil Dosmann. Lead guides will be AMI certified, and Claude comfortably rattled off a list of essential elements she will have in place at the school: mixed-age groupings, a trained teacher, prepared environments, a three-hour work cycle, Montessori materials — even cursive writing. There’s a professional development plan in place including weekly meetings with a Montessori consultant, and new teachers will have mentorship support.
Health and wellness have been part of the Penfield mission all along, and these services will continue for the Academy students, many of whom will qualify for state services. This includes behavioral support, occupational therapy, hearing and speech support, nursing, and family care. Claude said she would work to extend Montessori principles to service providers, “teaching them all to understand and respect the environment.”
Family engagement will also carry over from the Center to the school. Claude plans home visits to school families, and everyone from the Head of School, to teachers, assistants, therapists, and administrative staff will take part. Parents will be invited into the school community as well, for coffee with Claude, as volunteers, and for “Montessori 101” style parent education, because, as Claude put it, “Montessori is not just in the classroom.” This model resembles the approach at programs such as Lumin in Dallas and Breakthrough Montessori in Washington, D.C., and has the potential for broad impact.
I asked Parry and Claude what the greatest challenges had been, or were expected, and what someone doing the same work should know. Parry pointed to the challenge of getting the school started quickly. Planning has been going on for 24 to 36 months, but they closed on the new building on July 8th, and children arrive in September. As for advice, he said, “Don’t try to do it on your own,” and (as a good VP of Development and Communications should), spoke of being “truly fortunate to have tremendous organizations as partners”, such as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, and peers in the non-profit community world.
Claude identified the challenge, which she’s quick to assert will be met, of the transient urban community, and her drive to recruit and keep families who may have unstable living situations. She wants families to understand the three year cycle, and that when the children come as three year-olds, the school wants them to stay. She’s confident that creating a welcoming partnership with deep family engagement will encourage families to keep coming to the school even if they move across town. “There’s a reason Montessori is structured the way it is — it meets the developmental needs of each child in a sequential order.”
For someone taking on this work, she counsels establishing a strong mission and vision for the institution, and letting that drive the direction and the daily actions of the school. For Penfield, that’s those three pillars of Montessori education, health and wellness, and family engagement. “We’re not just opening a Montessori school,” she said. “We’re building a community.”