Montessori for Homeless Families
Montessori in a homeless shelter?
You might be thinking, “How is that going to work?”
When we think of “the homeless”, we don’t necessarily think of children. Maybe we think of the people we see wrapped in sleeping bags or blankets sleeping on the sidewalks, or panhandling at intersections — mostly adult men, often (we suspect) disabled, suffering from drug and alcohol dependency or mental illness, and traumatized by poverty. We only sometimes see women, and we don’t usually see children.
But they are out there. They have always been out there. In 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted over 200,000 homeless people in families with children, making up 36% of all homeless people counted. Nearly 25% of all homeless people were children. (The numbers are down slightly over the last few years as the economy has recovered, but are still alarmingly high.)
But when it comes to providing these children Montessori in a homeless shelter, we might also think — doesn’t a shelter by definition serve a transient population? If the goal of services is to move individuals and families off the street, out of the shelter, and into housing, how will the children be there long enough to make up a proper Montessori classroom? Isn’t it hard enough in our Primary classrooms when families want to start in the middle of the year, just when we feel like our group is starting to gel?
Well, yes, it’s hard. But these children’s lives are hard, too, of course — in a way that makes our concerns about adding a new four year-old in December seem a little small. And, the problems of homelessness, and the life issues that caused homelessness in the first place, don’t go away quickly. And maybe, with some creativity, there might be a way to serve these children for longer than just a few weeks or months.
Finally, we might think, with all of the unmet needs these children and families have — safety, shelter, clothing, employment, nutrition, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health support, life skills — should Montessori school really be a priority?
But maybe it’s exactly what they need. Two inspiring programs, one in Indiana which has been running for more than twenty years, and one in Minnesota which is just getting started, have been making it work.
The Montessori Academy at Edison Lakes
and the Center for the Homeless
The Montessori Academy at Edison Lakes (TMA), founded in 1969 in South Bend, Indiana, is an AMS and ISACS accredited private Montessori school in Mishawaka, a suburb of South Bend, serving children from toddlers through 8th grade. 22 years ago, on the occasion of the school’s 25th anniversary, TMA launched a unique partnership with South Bend’s Center for the Homeless to put a Children’s House classroom in a homeless shelter.
TMA Head of School Deborah Drendall was there at the time and spoke with me about the program. The school was looking for a way to give back to the community to mark its 25th year. Drendall knew the director of the Center, and thought of working with the program as a way of bringing Montessori back to its roots in San Lorenzo, where Maria Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini served a vulnerable working poor population. She pitched the idea to the Center’s director and to her own board, offering to place trained teachers in the Center if they would provide the space. “He jumped,” she said.
Funding, of course, was an immediate challenge. The arrangement reached was a 50-50 split of expenses between the Center and the Academy, with the school’s share coming not from the operating budget but from dedicated fundraising. The Center contributes funds raised from grants and philanthropy. Today, the school’s contribution comes to about $40,000 per year, a significant commitment considering that the Academy, not unusally for a private school, meets up to 20% of its operating budget through additional fundraising. Still, Drendall told me, “For the most part, people feel that this is a wonderful opportunity to give.”
The Center for the Homeless is unique in its own way. Founded in 1989, today the Center serves over 250 people on any given night, including at least 60 children. The Center is much more than just a shelter, providing a recreation center, veteran’s services, a health center, early childhood education, and more, with the help of 50 staff and 400 volunteers. Clients (or “guests”) who stay more than a night or two are assigned a coach and commit to a wide range of programming covering personal development, education, job training, parenting skills, financial management, and beyond. As much as possible, guests are moved through the system into affordable housing in the community and eventually to homeownership, a process that can take up to three years.
This continuum of services and care created the perfect opportunity for a Montessori Children’s House classroom for the increasing number of homeless families the Center has seen. The classroom serves about 20 children at a time, and while children can arrive and leave at any time through the year, many stay six months to a year, and several are close to completing a three-year cycle. A group of 8th grade students from The Montessori Academy comes to do community service in the classroom every week, reading with children, giving them lessons, and also encouraging them to work on their own.
I first read about the Montessori classroom at the Center in a blog post on Milkweed Montessori profiling lead teacher Porzia Micou (also featured on Baan Dek Montessori’s blog). Micou told me about the impact the program has on children and families. Children come in with a parent during the intake process, and depending on the urgency, they may start very quickly. The first few weeks are spent observing the child and reading where they are academically and emotionally. Many of the children have experienced trauma, of course, and present with sensory issues or other undiagnosed conditions, that may keep them from being able to sit through a whole three-period lesson. Micou makes adjustments and tries to make sure they are getting what they can from the experience, sometimes referring children to therapists on the Center staff. When children transition out of the program, they take social and emotional regulation skills with them, even if they go back into homelessness. The center has seen behavior improvement and reduced problems even when children move on to conventional public school.
Families also benefit from the Montessori program, as the consistency and order of their children’s Montessori experience influences their lives. The Center’s support programs also help with mental health support, nutrition, and life skills to address the causes of homelessness. I asked Micou if the children she works with present challenges different from children of more affluent families in private schools. She said that actually some of those children of doctors, lawyers, and professors, at times in before and after care for long days, and with a full schedule of piano lessons and gym classes, seem equally traumatized. For the children in her classroom, she said, “the minute they come in here, they experience peace. And you don’t need to come from a certain economic status to feel that.”
The Family Place in St. Paul, Minnesota
The Family Place began as a day shelter, growing out of founder Margaret Lovejoy’s work with Project Home, an emergency night shelter with the Council of Churches. One day twenty years ago, a volunteer asked her where homeless families went during the day. Lovejoy didn’t know, so she asked them. Some rode public transit all day. Some put their children on school buses. One women went to a center for homeless men, where she held her child all day.
Lovejoy started the Family Place to fill this gap. Beginning in 2001, The Family Place provided a safe place for homeless families with children during the day. In those days, the center served just four or five families at a time, who would cycle out of the shelter in a matter of days or weeks, with numbers peaking in the winter and dropping off in the summer. But as time went on, numbers grew, a waiting list developed, and families began to have longer stays — from four or five months up to as many as eight or nine.
Five years ago, Lovejoy’s daughter Susanne Lovejoy took Montessori Primary training at the Montessori Center of Minnesota (MCM). Margaret Lovejoy was reading her daughter’s papers about the prepared environment, order and sequence, and independence, aimed at toddlers and preschoolers at the time, and she had a realization: this could be transformed and rewritten for adults. “This,” she told me, “was what the parents were missing in their lives.” Margaret launched Going Home, a Montessori-inspired 16 week curriculum for Family Place clients to help them develop independence, emphasizing self-care, parenting skills, community involvement, finances, housing, and employment. The order and sequence of the Montessori approach resonated with her. “Montessori shows children how to go step by step, from A to B and all the way to Z,” she said. “Many of our families want to go straight from A to Z.” If you want a car, she explained, you can’t just take $600 you may have pulled together and buy one. You need a license, insurance, money for gas and repairs, etc. Montessori has helped her clients make those connections.
Ten years ago Lovejoy (who is on the board of the Montessori Center of Minnesota) had been at a fundraising event and saw the plans for an upcoming remodel. At the tine, she was inspired to bring progressive education to the children in her care. She began to work with MCM President and Director of Training Molly O’Shaugnessy and Montessori Partners Serving All Children to develop a “modified version” of a Primary classroom. There was no trained teacher, and as a non-licensed program, parents had to be in the room with their children at all times. “It was very modified,” Lovejoy said. A second attempt after a modest remodel was not much more successful, especially with children with traumatic backgrounds.
In 2014, Lovejoy “bit the bullet” and sent staff to a two week assistants training, and acquired some materials and presentation trays. In honor of $5,000 raised by 10-year old supporter Bella Lauer, Casa de la Bella Montessori opened to Family Place children. Margaret’s daughter Susanne came on board as an adviser. O’Shaugnessy warned her that without a trained guide in the environment, success would be elusive, but Lovejoy hoped what she had would be enough. She was dismayed to find, after just a few weeks, that the staff had “put away all the breakables, and turned it into just another playroom.” Finally in March, the center hired a trained guide and brought back the glass plates, and began to see some changes.
Lovejoy also realized that she needed to become fully licensed, so parents could leave their children in the center. Homeless parents who got a job would find themselves waiting six weeks for county childcare to be approved, and miss opportunities. Finally, in September of this year, Casa de la Bella re-launched as a licensed Montessori child care center, serving seven to nine toddlers and preschool children, with a trained guide and a full set of materials. The space can accommodate up to 17 children, and there may be an opportunity to go up to 30 as the program grows. Currently the age range is 18 months to four years old, but a kindergarten year is also a possibility, perhaps a year from now. Families have the option to keep their children in the program even if they transition out of homelessness.
Lovejoy and the center haven’t stopped with the life skills program and the child care center. The Family Place has always been a day shelter, but this year the center is extending its services to a 16-bed four month temporary housing program in a home-like building where clients can build residential and life skills such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. It’s easy to see the influence of Montessori Practical Life activities in this new initiative.
Margaret Lovejoy shared a sweet vignette from her work: A few months ago, a homeless father in the center had the opportunity to watch his two-year old daughter working in the practical life area. She worked with engagement and concentration, finished her task, washed out her towel, and hung it up to dry. Dad couldn’t believe that his two year-old was capable of this. “That’s what Montessori is there for,” Lovejoy said. “I can help the child get to a better place, and help the entire family.”
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.