Montessori in Milwaukee Public Schools
This article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
A district-wide system dating back to the 1970s
There has been Montessori in Milwaukee since at least 1961, when AMI trainer Hildegard Solzbacher helped found Milwaukee Montessori School. Solzbacher taught, administered, and trained teachers in Milwaukee, and publicly advocated for Montessori, notably through a series of public lectures at Marquette University. In 1973, she worked with Milwaukee Public Schools Early Childhood Specialist Grace Iacolucci to launch four Montessori pre-kindergarten programs, the first public Montessori schools in Wisconsin and among the first in the nation.
Desegregation is the driver
In the mid 1970s, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation orders, bussing, and “white flight”, a new idea for voluntary integrating schools arose: “magnet schools,” which would draw more affluent white families back to impoverished, blacker inner-city schools with new programs and additional resources. In 1976, under a court-ordered desegregation plan, Milwaukee Public Schools looked to magnet schools. The existing MPS Montessori preschools provided a ready supply of interested families from all over the city. The preschools were consolidated and MacDowell Montessori School was established in 1978, making it the first in the country to publicly fund Montessori for four-year-olds. Funding for three-year-olds was added in 1981. Solzbacher continued to guide and support the school, and by 1982 MacDowell was a well-established Montessori program attracting trained Montessori teachers from not only Milwaukee, but across the US.
As parents demanded additional Montessori seats for their children, Greenfield Montessori was launched in 1983, serving children from thee years old through fifth grade. Greenfield quickly became successful, again creating long wait lists for entry ages three and four, and the program expanded to middle school in 1995.
MacDowell and Greenfield continued to provide successful Montessori education for the remainder of the 1980s and early 90s, through fifth grade at both sites, eventually adding sixth through eigth grade in these and all future programs. During this time no new Montessori programs were created in MPS. But in 1994, newly elected school board members saw the merits of Montessori education in MPS and the Neighborhood Schools Initiative (NSI). The NSI took into account the need for Montessori schools and began to look at the need to locate the programs strategically in the city.
In 1996, Phil Dosmann, a longtime advocate of Milwaukee public Montessori and Montessori trained teacher and curriculum coordinator at MacDowell, worked with the school board and a neighborhood association to launch Craig Montessori, and was named principal of the school. Craig opened with 200 three- and four-year olds, and expanded to 8th grade by 2004. The school now serves more than 500 students from three years old through 8th grade.
Craig was the first MPS Montessori school to achieve AMI Recognition, and MacDowell also achieved AMI recognition around this time. Dosmann advocated for Montessori trained administrators in two programs he was administrating. Mr. Dosmann currently is semi-retired from his role as the executive director of the Wisconsin Montessori Association (WMA) and worked for MPS as a principal coach and Montessori teacher recruiter for the Montessori programs.
Also in 1996, Highland Community School, founded as a private school in 1968, became Milwaukee’s first charter school. A second school, Downtown Montessori Academy, founded as a private school in 1976, converted to a charter in 1998. Highland, an MPS non-instramentality charter, now serves nearly 400 students from three years old through 8th grade, and Downtown serves 272 over the same age range.
In 2001, also under the NSI, Maryland Avenue Montessori, serving children from three years old through 8th grade, was opened, and Greenfield Montessori moved to the former Fernwood school and was renamed Fernwood Montessori School. Maryland now serves more than 450 students from three years old through 8th grade, and Fernwood enrolls more than 700.
Montessori High School
In 2006, with support from a grant for “teacher run schools” from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, a Montessori IB high school was launched. In 2011, the school merged with MacDowell Montessori, which now serves more than 700 children from three years old through 12th grade. Also in 2006, a small program was opened at the Kosciuszko school, serving the nearby Spanish-speaking community. The program did not thrive and was closed in 2014, but a new MPS Montessori bilingual program was launched in 2017 at Riley School on the near south side.
In 2009, MPS launched Lloyd Barbee Montessori school in a historically black and low-income area of the central city. The school is named for Lloyd Augustus Barbee, a black politican and civil rights activist whose 1965 lawsuit against Milwaukee Public Schools eventually resulted in the 1976 desegregation order which drove the development of public Montessori in the city. The school serves more than 300 children through 6th grade.
In 2012, Dosmann again played a role in Milwaukee Public Montessori, helping launch Howard Avenue Montessori school, now renamed Bayview Montessori, which has since expanded into two campuses serving more than 350 children expanding through 8th grade.
The latest public Montessori program in Milwaukee was the Riley bilingual Spanish-English program on the near south side, opening in 2017. Riley offers dual-language Montessori instruction beginning with more than 100 three- and four- year olds, and plans to extend Montessori through 8th grade.
Public Montessori in Milwaukee has been on a long, slow rise since its inception in 1976. But its growth has proceeded unevenly, responding to the social conditions of the day and often driven by individual passionate and dedicated innovators. Historically, Montessori education in MPS has expanded due to parents, teacher and board members requesting a Montessori program either in their geographical region or to respond to a specific need. All this has happened without an overarching strategic plan.
But this is on the verge of changing for the 3500+ MPS Montessori students and families. In October of 2018, the MPS school board passed a resolution directing the administration to create a long-term Montessori Strategic Plan supporting the fortification of existing Montessori programs and expansion to underserved communities. Through the creation of the Montessori Advisory Council, this has been a collaborative effort, spearheaded by parent leadership a strategic plan was adopted by the MPS Board in the Spring of 2019.
MAC has developed a slate of concrete recommendations to the Board, including adoption of NCMPS Essential Elements, support for current and upcoming school leaders, expansion and financing of teacher training, whereby the district is collaborating with the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee to train current MPS teaching assistants in order to meet the ever increasing Montessori teacher needs, Montessori professional development, expansion plans, and an annual review process.
These recommendations are slowly being implemented, and a Montessori trained coordinator has already been hired to support implementation. If these steps can be taken, public Montessori in Milwaukee will continue its record of excellence and continue to bring quality, public Montessori education to even more children in the city of Milwaukee.
- A 1976 desegregation order drove the development of public Montessori in Milwaukee Public Schools