The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) was launched in 2012 (originally as a project of the American Montessori Society, later spun off as an independent non-profit) to be a resource for the public Montessori world. (MontessoriPublic is a publication of NCMPS.) In its first few years, NCMPS did a lot of different things — a “listening tour” of public programs across the country, supporting school start-ups, public advocacy in Washington, D.C., the Montessori Census, trying to build an understanding of the problems and the possible solutions. One thing the center was never going to do is start a school of its own.
Until Breakthrough came along.
Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School is a new five classroom, all-day Montessori charter school funded in part by grants from Washington D.C.’s Citybridge Foundation as part of the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) Regional Breakthrough Initiative. There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with NGLC.
Next Generation Learning
NGLC is “a network of educators, innovators, technologists, and philanthropic foundations” funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (at $44 billion, the world’s largest foundation), with additional support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
“Next Generation Learning” is an ed reform term originating in the early 1990s in instructional design and medical education, and at the time meant integrating then-new digital technologies such as virtual reality into medical school. Throughout the 90s, with the explosion of digital technology and the internet, the term and the technologies spread into general K-12 and higher education, and came to stand for just about any use of computers in classrooms.
But a funny thing happened along the way to the digital classroom of science fiction. The tech explosions in search, sharing, collaboration, connectivity, and sheer processing power empowered learners to explore, work independently or in collaboration, personalize content and pace, and construct their own learning. And then these qualities took on value in their own right. Today, “next generation learning” still implies technology in the classroom, and tech still plays a large role — the Gates Foundation is the major funder, along with the Dell and Hewlett-Packard family foundations. But computers don’t even make it into NGLC’s “core principles” — a transformation to “experiential, purpose-driven, and authentic learning” led by educators. Elsewhere, NGLC cites:
- Personalized Learning — individualized for each student’s strengths, needs, interests, and goals
- Competency-Based Education — advancement based on mastery rather than credits or seat time
- Deeper Learning — critical thinking and problem-solving, effective communication, collaboration and self-directed learning
- Blended Learning — online, adaptive curricula and other technology
- Student-Centered Learning — students exert control over their own learning
“Technology” still makes the list, but the other four criteria line up pretty well with Montessori. Is Montessori is next-generation learning without the tech?
NGLC launched in 2010 as a project administered by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association of 2,300 colleges, universities, educational organizations, and corporations whose mission is “to advance higher education through the use of information technology.” NGLC focused initially on exactly that mission, giving $420,000,000 in a first round of grants for “technology applications that can improve postsecondary education”, and supported software and online innovations in colleges and universities. NGLC’s mission has evolved, though, and by 2012 it was already offering funding for “Breakthrough models” — “whole-school solutions to improve student performance across secondary education”, extending down into high school and broadening its focus. Magnolia Montessori For All in Austin, Texas, was the first Montessori school to receive NGLC funding.
In 2013, NGLC announced NGLC 2014 Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools, a project now partnering NGLC with seven regional organizations to design and launch up to 100 student-centered, personalized, blended learning programs, typically charter schools, in hubs across the country. Two more Montessori schools were funded in this round, Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, California, and Breakthrough in Washington, D.C.
NGLC directed funding through regional partners, and in D.C. that partner was the CityBridge Foundation. CityBridge is an influential D.C. nonprofit founded by D.C. power couple Katherine and David Bradley. Katherine is the president of the foundation, and serves on the Boards of Trustees of Princeton University and KIPP, the national charter school network, and chairs the Teach For America–D.C. Region board. David owns Atlantic Media, which includes The Atlantic, the National Journal, Quartz, and other prominent publications. Originally working in international health, CityBridge has extended its work to combatting entrenched, multigenerational urban poverty in D.C., supporting charters and other public schools, early childhood education, and teacher preparation, seeing schools as “the best leverage point for philanthropic investment.”
The CityBridge Breakthrough Schools D.C. initiative funded six charter schools initially, seven more in a second round, and expects to fund seven more in a final round, granting $6 million in all. One of those first schools was Breakthrough. But it almost didn’t happen. NGLC gives seven Design Principles for Breakthrough Schools:
- Student Centered—designed to meet diverse learning needs
- High Expectations—ensures that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards, preparing them for success in college and career
- Self Pacing and Mastery-Based Credit—students move at their optimal pace, receiving credit when they demonstrate mastery
- Blended Instruction—optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction
- Student Ownership—empowers students with skills, information, and tools to manage their own learning
- Financial Sustainability—sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
- Scalable—designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact
These were all easy to work include in a Montessori charter school application — except the “technology-delivered instruction” of Blended Instruction. Even with NGLC’s expanded understanding of “next generation learning”, Montessori’s prioritization of hands-on, sensorial experience and strong aversion to laptops and tablets, especially for children under six, generated some pushback. But CityBridge staff successfully argued that there wasn’t a model out there that supported self-directed, personalized, autonomous learning better than Montessori. Moreover, while the use of technology in all its forms to facilitate instruction can be enticing, it remains unproven—whereas Montessori has decades of implementation and a growing body of research to back it up. In the end, Montessori won the day.
So NCMPS was never going to start a school. But in 2013, staff at CityBridge who had seen, and been impressed by, Montessori schools, reached out to NCMPS, urging them to put in a charter proposal. Washington, D.C., is charter-friendly, with a strong presence going back to 1996 and serving nearly half of the district’s children in 115 schools, many of them achievement-oriented, “no-excuses” style schools along the lines of KIPP. D.C. has a public Montessori tradition going back to at least 1974, and now offers four district Montessori schools and three charters. But support for Montessori has ebbed and flowed over the decades, and programs struggled at times to deliver fully-implemented Montessori. Montessori-trained teachers were in short supply, and even trained teachers found working in public schools, with children in poverty, challenging — a problem not exclusive to Montessori.
By 2013, NCMPS staff had visited many public Montessori programs across the country, and had learned a lot about what it takes to do public Montessori well, and about the challenges public programs face. D.C. is a favorable environment for a Montessori charter: teacher licensure is not required, and funding is available beginning with three year-olds. And the CityBridge Breakthrough grants offered substantial support. NCMPS saw an opportunity to build a model program with the resources to support staffing and tools to really succeed.
Staffing and tools for success are delivered via the D.C. Montessori Teacher Residency, a key element of the Breakthrough charter application. Urban teacher residency is a model developed in Boston in the early 2000s to address teacher shortages and high attrition in urban public schools. Residency programs typically offer teacher training embedded in a year-long classroom apprenticeship and continued professional development and support after job placement. The D.C. Montessori Teacher Residency, developed by NCMPS, is built around three elements: Training, Surround, and Culture.
Training here is Montessori training from AMI or a MACTE-accredited teacher education program, and Breakthrough has hired trained guides for all lead positions and four additional support staff. The Surround of the Residency supports teachers working in high poverty public programs: additional coursework covering (for example) Trauma and the Developing Child, Cultural Competence, and Language Acquisition and Poverty. Finally, the Culture element is the development of a whole-school culture of continuous improvement, supported by weekly Child Study (a Montessori-influenced, child-centered version of RTI), Lesson Study (a continuous review of Montessori practice), and workshops supporting fully implemented public Montessori.
Next Week: Part II — Breakthrough in Action