Public Montessori ECE sprouting in Oregon
This article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
A small program thrives and grows
Alder Montessori, a tiny Children’s House program housed in a public school in Oregon, has survived its first few hard winters and continues to thrive and send up green shoots.
Alder is a two-classroom, tuition-free Children’s House program embedded within Alder Elementary School, a Title I, 86% FRL, K-5 school serving a demographically diverse population of about 400 children. The school is in Reynolds School District, one of the most poverty-impacted districts in Oregon even as it sits adjacent to the relatively prosperous Portland School District. Reynolds SD is majority Latinx, but more than 30 languages are spoken within the students’ homes, including Somali, Russian, and Vietnamese, and a host of others.
Alder got started in 2015 as a collaboration between I Have a Dream Oregon, Reynolds School District, and Montessori Northwest, Portland’s AMI teacher training center. I Have a Dream, since renamed Greater Than, works in Oregon to support students from poverty-impacted communities through education, partnering with supports for families from cradle to career, and works with Alder Elementary to implement a whole-school model to follow students through to high school and on to college and employment. Alder Montessori initially served just three- and four-year-olds, funded by private philanthropy and Oregon’s high-quality public preschool funding pilot, Preschool Promise. Kindergarten age children entered Alder Elementary’s regular classes.
The program grew from its humble beginnings of 20 students, eventually serving more than 40 families, building family engagement and a robust waiting list for the program. But while the program has steadily grown, the organizational structure has changed a bit, moving away from the Montessori Northwest aegis and eventually to a home of its own: in 2019, a new organization was formed, the Alliance for Equity in Montessori Education (AEME), able to focus exclusively on Alder Montessori and to further develop and extend the program. And to replicate the model in other public-school systems.
Keeping the five-year-olds in the Montessori classroom has been a challenge for Alder Montessori since the beginning. The school district quite naturally expected five-year-olds to enroll in Alder Elementary. But with the formation of AEME, and months of networking, persistence, and negotiation, that challenge has been met. Beginning this September, both classrooms were able to retain their five-year old children for the full three-to-six age range, staffed with an Oregon-licensed, Montessori-trained teacher fully funded by the district. This kind of collaboration is somewhat unusual in the public education world, so it’s a credit to all the participants that they were able to create this structure to seamlessly support children’s development.
The next steps for Alder Montessori and AEME are developing the pilot program further and spreading it to other areas. Four core elements have been identified for the pilot program and any expansions:
- State-licensed, Montessori trained teachers with a MACTE-accredited certification
- A full three-to-six age range including “Kindergarten” age children
- A summer program to meet the needs of families when public school is not in session
- Home visits for new and returning families to support family engagement with the program and with children’s development
The licensed teachers and full age range are already in place, and the other elements are under development at Alder. Expansion to additional locations is planned for the 2020-21 school year. Reynolds has expressed interest in exploring the Alder model as an Early Childhood Education (ECE) system for other schools in the district, and AEME expects the fully-implemented Montessori model to be attractive and replicable as more Oregon education stakeholders and policymakers see the program in action.
Alder trees are considered a “pioneer species” in the Pacific Northwest, where they characteristically take root in poor soil at the foot of retreating glaciers, or in areas damaged or disturbed by floods, fires, or windstorms. They fix massive amounts of nitrogen in the soil, improving its fertility and preparing the way for sturdier, more long-lived trees. There couldn’t be a much better metaphor for what Alder Montessori and AEME hope to achieve.
David Ayer is the Communications Director for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, and a board member of the Alliance for Equity in Montessori Education