Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School
(Part II of a profile on Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School — you can read part I, which describes how the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector got started with Breakthrough, here.)
NCMPS applied for a $100,000 planning grant in 2013, which was awarded in the spring of 2014, and had a year to plan and write the charter proposal for a 2016 opening. The proposal was approved in 2015, and another $300,000 from CityBridge, along with a federal grant of nearly $700,000 (which is available to most DC charter start-ups) came with it, providing for time and resources to begin work a year ahead of the launch. NCMPS was determined that the school be a true “breakthrough”: serving a low income and underserved population, with an approach they believed hadn’t yet been implemented or fully realized in existing programs. The school was designed to provide high fidelity Montessori (which could be considered “breakthrough” on its own) along with an emphasis on working with children early to prevent problems later, and engaging deeply with the community to build broad support for and among children and families.
In fact, these key concepts — human development, prevention, and community — emerged as three ‘pillars’ of the Breakthrough model, according to NCMPS Director of Research Jacqueline Cossentino. All of these features cost money, and were only possible with the generous support of CityBridge and Next Generation Learning Challenges. But Cossentino is unapologetic about the budget: “Our intention is for Breakthrough be a model for other programs. We want to maximize the potential of the D.C. policy environment to show what’s really needed to get the transformational changes we know we’re going to see.”
Montessori education is at its core a model of human development, and Breakthrough aims for full Montessori implementation in the classroom and beyond. “Montessori guides everything we do, for every adult in the building,” Cossentino said, “and we’re constantly engaged in the question of ‘what does it mean to serve the child?’” Operationally, this means abundant staffing and constant professional cultivation, and financial support was key. Seven trained guides were hired for five classrooms, making possible all-day Montessori as well as creating a reserve for contingencies — a “deep bench”, one might say. Likewise, the D.C. Residency was developed to provide professional development and support, and to build a teacher pipeline that will benefit not just Breakthrough, but all D.C. area public Montessori schools.
The underlying principle here is that fully-implemented Montessori can be a guiding model for prevention. Montessori prepared environments are by definition designed to foster optimal development, which in itself ‘crowds out’ unhealthy development before it can get started. The calm, orderly spaces stocked with child-sized furniture and child-oriented manipulatives can act as treatments for developmental challenges similar to those offered by occupational therapy. Montessori training for adults focuses on observation of children, so teachers will be able to catch special needs early and remediate.
Even the structure of the program will foster prevention. Breakthrough provides continuous Montessori programming from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm (a necessity for working families) in a prepared environment with a trained guide. The school opened in August with only three and four year olds, so staff can catch challenges before they become disabilities. “We know that you have better outcomes when you really invest in the youngest children,” Cossentino said. And because the D.C. environment includes generous funding for both three and four year olds, Breakthrough aimed to leverage that by starting with a larger-than-normal cohort of this age group. As part of the Residency, Breakthrough staff will take part in Child Study — a Response to Intervention (RTI) – style protocol first developed by NCMPS researchers in 2009. Child Study brings together the faculty as a whole to support a teacher in removing obstacles, developing an action plan, and monitoring progress for a child experiencing developmental and learning challenges. Child Study may eventually lead to a special education designation, but it has the potential to develop strategies to get a child “back on track” before major intervention is needed.
When you’re working with parents of young children, you want to make as many opportunities as you can for them to be blown away by the child’s possibilities and capabilities. So many stressors — which are obstacles to development — can be so easily resolved with just a few little things: bedtime, choice, a predictable routine. You have to follow the family as well as the child.
The work with families is led by the Director of Family and Community Engagement Emily Hedin, a position originally budgeted for year two, but brought into year one because of its importance. NCMPS sees Breakthrough ultimately as a driver of community transformation, and this begins with the family but extends beyond. Cossentino:
It’s about transforming families, the neighborhood, the world — giving them access to what’s possible when children developing naturally. The power of the child to inspire us be better, to show us how we can be better as parents, citizens, human beings — this is what we’re trying to embody in this school.
This means intensive engagement far ahead of actual enrollment, and constant outreach, more like what might be seen in a private school. Hedin called every applicant, inviting them to information sessions, and called every lottery winner to welcome them the day names were drawn. A detailed family handbook went out early, to keep parents informed and invite their involvement.
Over the summer, Breakthrough hosted ten events in all for families: playdates, community dinners, volunteer meetings, and forums on multiculturalism and diversity. In August, each child received a welcome letter and photos from their guide and assistant. They were also invited to a welcome visit where they spent 20 minutes in the classroom one-on-one with their guide. Meanwhile, parents had a meeting with Hedin to make sure all questions were answered. All of this feels much more like the private school experience than what you might find in a public program.
Breakthrough plans a prepared environment in the school for parents, stocked with coffee and computers, to communicate “you belong in this building, too.” Rather than a PTA, Breakthrough hosts a School Home Association, to emphasize the relationship and connect what happens at home with the child’s school experience. Hedin has reached out to the wider community as well — aldermen, the Museum of Women in the Arts, and the D.C. Central Kitchen, among others — to embed the school in the neighborhood and D.C. community, and to make sure a Montessori education is inclusive and welcoming of all. Hedin takes her work seriously:
I am proud to work for a Montessori school that takes such a rigorous and dedicated approach to family and community engagement. We are committed to fully embracing Breakthrough families, as well as to reaching families who are unfamiliar with Montessori or the public Montessori options which exist in the city
The School and the Children
Breakthrough opened on August 22, 2016 with 90 three and four year olds in five classrooms, five lead guides, five assistants, two extended day guides, and an admin team of five. The school plans to extend to lower elementary in 2019, when this year’s four year olds turn seven, and to upper elementary in 2022, hopefully taking these children though sixth grade. When MontessoriPublic visited over the summer, staff were busy painting, unpacking boxes, setting up classrooms, and moving in:
But now the children are here:
Breakthrough has benefitted from the planning, resources, and determination that should allow it to succeed and flourish. We’ll be following the school as the story develops.