Spokane Public Montessori: Thirty Years in the Making
* Editor’s note: After speaking with several parents from Spokane Public Montessori, I’ve learned that there are some important nuances to the story below that I didn’t capture the first time around. Specifically, the neighborhoods may be more similar economically (and Balboa’s less distressed) than I made it appear. And, Balboa families spoke up for the strength of their school and community. I’m leaving the post as I wrote it, but I wanted to add this note of clarification.
Spokane, Washington, is a city of 200,000 in eastern Washington state literally hundreds of miles from anywhere else — the closest good-sized town, Yakima, at 93,000, is 200 miles away. Seattle and Portland are the nearest big cities at 278 miles and 350, respectively.
Yet Spokane has one of the oldest continuously thriving public Montessori programs in the country, going back 31 years to 1985 and now offering 15 classrooms. How did it get started, and how did it get to where it is today? The story touches on nearly every challenge of public Montessori in the last three decades: the access to training, overcoming resistance to a different model, balancing access and open enrollment with a sense of “fit” with Montessori, equity and diversity, changes in leadership, and more.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Paula-Gibson Smith, a veteran state-licensed public Montessori elementary teacher and AMI Auxillary Trainer who has been there since the beginning, and she told me her story.
It goes back to 1982, and began as you might expect, with a group of parents at a private Children’s House in town—Woodland Montessori School, still in business. They asked, as parents often do, “why does this have to stop at six?”, and put together a “kitchen table committee,” Spokane Community Advocates for a Montessori Curriculum, to get a public program going. (In 2008 that organization became the Community of Montessori Parents, or CoMP.) It turned out to be a three year process, addressing all the familiar concerns about curriculum, training, materials, testing, and more, and “jumping through hoops”, but in the end they won the district over. One of the “kitchen table moms” was already a licensed teacher in Washington, but to get Montessori training she had to leave home for a year to take the AMI Washington Montessori Institute academic year elementary training. Sending teachers away to get high quality training continues to be a limiting factor for public schools, and for someone from relatively remote Spokane, it was a big step.
Gibson-Smith was on that training course as well, and when the two returned to Spokane in the summer of 1985, she took a job at Woodland, the private school where the plan had hatched. The other woman began with a class of 1st and 2nd graders in the first public Montessori classroom in Spokane, at Jefferson Elementary. The first class may have been hand-picked from the local Children’s House graduates (Gibson-Smith doesn’t recall exactly) but after that it was lottery all the way. Because the program emerged from an AMI Primary, the founders built AMI into the agreement with the district, following the AMI pedagogy and committing to hiring teachers with that training, in part to keep the program coherent and stable by virtue of coming from a shared background.
As the Lower Elementary children headed for Upper Elementary, a second teacher left Spokane for a three-summer training, and in a few years a second classroom opened. And a few years later, in 1990, attracted for the most part by the opportunity to work in public school, but also by the salary and benefits offered to unionized pubic school teachers, Gibson-Smith joined the program as a third teacher in a new Lower Elementary. Her assistant started the Upper Elementary a few years later, in 1992.
“We were a tidy four [at Jefferson] for quite a while,” says Gibson-Smith. “But there was always the sense that the program could grown if there were more teachers.” There was always a waiting list for the lottery, even with the required parent orientation and paperwork. (Today, as an option school, Spokane Montessori no longer requires so much from families in advance. This increases access for working parents, no doubt, but it has an impact on community cohesion around shared values. “There’s no longer that element of talking to people about Montessori before they start,” Gibson-Smith observes.)
Also in 1992, a change came to the program. That year, there were two AMI applicants for the new teaching position. When parents got wind of the second teacher, they lobbied for opening another classroom, and she was hired. The original idea for the public Montessori program had been to put “little pods” of Montessori in schools around the district, to create equitable access for different parts of the city. Jefferson Elementary is in Spokane’s middle- to upper-middle-class South Side—naturally, because that’s where the private Montessori preschools were when it all got started. The new classroom was to be in Balboa Elementary, on the North side — a different demographic. “Not so many double-doctor, double-lawyer families, for sure,” Gibson-Smith explained. After a year at Jefferson, the new teacher moved to Balboa, and the program developed there as well, growing to include four classrooms at each location.
Both schools faced the challenges public Montessori programs face. They fought with the district over report cards: the Montessori classrooms didn’t want to give grades. The district “threw testing and curriculum at us, and we had to keep telling them it didn’t fit,” Gibson-Smith recalls. “They would buy a curriculum and unload it on us. Finally we got them to agree to keep their curriculum and just give us the money.” Funding for Montessori materials was an issue as well — $35,000 was much more than a regular class budget. Gibson-Smith and her team were ultimately able to explain that the materials weren’t consumables, to be replaced every year. They were built to last.
But the story became a tale of two neighborhoods, one more affluent, the other not so much. At Jefferson, the same principal stayed with the school for twenty years. She had been selected to lead and grow the “alternative” program there, and grow it she did. Having leadership who understood and advocated for Montessori year after year made a big difference. At Balboa, by contrast, there was a new principal every two or three years, as new hires cycled out to more desirable schools. While Jefferson grew strong and stable, Balboa never really got on a solid footing.
In the late 1990s, the programs underwent their first AMI consultation (an outside review by AMI that is part certification, part professional development). Staff from both programs joined the consultant in arguing for locating them both in the same building. “It was too hard to maintain our identity when we were just a drop in the bucket,” Gibson-Smith said. “We needed our own school — not one foot on the dock and one in the boat.” Three years ago, with six classrooms at Jefferson and four at Balboa, a window opened up. The district had an underused school building in the north side Emerson neighborhood, on the edge of what’s been known in Spokane as Felony Flats (technically, West Central). A new principal, Shannon Lawson, came on board and the programs were brought together.
Spokane Public Montessori
Shannon Lawson is anything but a Montessori insider. She came to Spokane Public Montessori from twenty years in non-Montessori public education, and coming from a “high-poverty background”, as she put it, “[public] school was a saving grace.” But during her first few years teaching at a public middle school for at-risk youth, she told me, “I came to the realization that the system itself was the putting children at risk.” She continues her work with children at the margins of the system, launching another alternative middle school program, developing interventions, and connecting with homeschool families. She looked at Spokane’s Montessori elementary programs and knew enough to find out if they were “legitimate Montessori”. They must have met her expectations, because when Spokane decided to unify two schools, Lawson decided this was her calling.
The Jefferson and Balboa programs came together at the former Havermale Junior High, reborn as Spokane Public Montessori School, opening in September of 2014 even if the toilets weren’t all working. Given the historical proximity of the Jefferson program to a more affluent neighborhood, not every family was thrilled with the move to Havermale. At the same time, families in the new neighborhood weren’t necessarily aware of Montessori, or didn’t see it as a desirable educational model, so it has been challenging to have the student body representative of the neighborhood. It’s doubly challenging for Spokane Public, since it is an “option school”, open to city wide choice. As public Montessori programs have found in many cities, the lottery skews affluent even if the neighborhood doesn’t. Lawson works the neighborhood the best she can, scheduling regular open houses with child care and attending neighborhood meetings, but as long as the lottery is unweighted (a controversial approach in its own right), the social justice mission of the school is somewhat constrained.
Hiring trained teachers has been a challenge as well. It was almost impossible to find AMI trained, Washington state licensed teachers either in Spokane or willing to relocate. At first, Lawson told me, she “came in hoping everyone would be sold on Montessori.” She looked for licensed teachers with mixed-age, hands-on, outdoor education backgrounds and thought she could make Montessorians of them. But not everyone understand the philosophy, or was interested in taking the training or sticking with the approach. So she rethought hiring, taking it slow, holding back on opening more classrooms without having more teachers in place, and even looking a year or more in advance for staff. Still, the dilemma remained. Trained Montessori teachers weren’t eager to take on a an additional year or two of schooling — any more than licensed teachers were eager to go away for Montessori training.
And then, just when it was needed most, a solution long in the works came to fruition. There is already a teacher licensure program in Spokane, at Whitworth Universtity, a private residential Christian liberal arts college. Beginning in 2010, Dr. Kathryn Picanco, a Spokane native and a Whitworth Associate Professor of Education, had been working with Paula Gibson-Smith on developing a middle school expansion for the Montessori program, and talking about bringing Montessori training to Whitworth. Nothing happened at the time, but the groundwork was laid for a partnership between the college and Montessori Northwest (MNW), an AMI training center in Portland, Oregon. Beginning in the summer of 2015, MNW began a three-summer elementary training course at Whitworth with an option to earn (with some additional coursework) either a M.Ed. or a Masters in Teaching, which grants a Washington teacher licensure. Lawson was able to send five licensed teachers for AMI training, and several of the 25 students on the course are new state licensure candidates.
Lawson still faces the challenges of public Montessori every day. Extending the program to include three- and four-year olds is not on the table at this point, even though there is a Spokane Public Schools ECE program on site. Diversity remains a challenge even with Lawson’s outreach efforts. Data and assessment are challenges as well. “Thirty years ago,” Lawson told me, “families (and districts) didn’t expect so much data. ‘My child is happy,’ was enough. Now it’s ‘My childisn’t doing so well, let’s get in there and fix it today.’” Lawson understands this concern, but sees the problem ultimately as one of parent education: “We don’t need more data point — we need more conversations about what it all means. We need to hep parents understand what we’re doing here.” Still, she said, “On any given day in this building, I can see everything I believe in about public education.”
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.