Surviving the Storm: Public Montessori Reform in Puerto Rico
This article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
A community rallied to save the schools and support democracy
You may have recently heard about weeks of massive protests in Puerto Rico that ousted governor Rosselló from his post. You may not have heard about how the public Montessori movement fits into this picture. The grass-roots, community-based movement has been advocating for social justice through transformative education reform for almost thirty years. During the recent controversies surrounding the Rosselló administration’s austerity measures, corruption scandals, and post-María crises, the public Montessori movement has been on the front lines, mobilizing school communities to demand government transparency, citizen participation, and educational equity. In the midst of events that led to widespread unrest and forced the governor’s resignation, Montessori school communities have been fighting, and winning, to keep their schools open and intact. Their most recent achievements offer inspiration to guide our paths forward in the public implementation of Montessori pedagogy.
As reported in the winter 2018 issue of MontessoriPublic, a network of more than 40 public Montessori schools in Puerto Rico has accomplished remarkable, community-based school transformations within the highly centralized and impoverished Puerto Rican Department of Education (PRDE). The public Montessori movement, helmed by the non-profit organization Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), which trains Montessori guides and supports schools in transforming to Montessori methodology, is based on pillars of collective governance and active community and family participation. Ideologically, the movement is rooted in the belief that education must serve as a critical vehicle for social justice. As Ana María García Blanco, INE’s Executive Director and veteran leader of the movement explains, the ultimate goal is to “build a system that offers a very good school for everyone, everywhere, so people have the knowledge they need to participate in democracy. This is what would further Montessori’s vision of creating a more just society for all.” This philosophy led the public Montessori movement to triumph during one of the most devastating moments in the history of public education in Puerto Rico, and has set a groundbreaking precedent for public Montessori education worldwide.
In December 2018, a pioneering law established the Montessori Education Secretariat within PRDE, which grants Montessori schools the authority and autonomy to make decisions regarding curriculum and planning, school organization, teacher and staff training, and community participation. Although the Secretariat was first created in 2014 under a flimsy public policy that any secretary of education could annul, the passing of the law ensures the operational mechanisms and resources necessary to sustain the Montessori project within the public infrastructure. It also allows the Montessori Secretariat to maintain its close partnership with INE. A monumental reform achievement in itself, the law was incredibly passed in the midst of Puerto Rico’s most severe public education crisis. The Montessori movement’s responses to this crisis—and its victories—foreshadowed massive protests this summer against the Rosselló administration’s austerity measures and corruption, and embody how community empowerment can successfully drive equitable and sustainable education reform. Current Secretary of Montessori Education, Rosa Recondo, jokes that Montessori is the “excuse” for school transformation, but underscores that the movement is about much more. Indeed, since 1993 when the first public Montessori school, Juan Ponce de León, began operating with a single environment, INE has ignited system-wide reform based on a school transformation model that equally values collective governance, family and community participation, and Montessori methodology.
The Perfect Storm
In late 2016, a fiscal control board known locally as the Junta was created under the congressionally-mandated Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). The Junta’s call for sweeping government cutbacks intensified and escalated neoliberal interventions into Puerto Rico’s public education system. Julia Keleher, former secretary of education whose abrupt resignation in April 2019 after sixteen months in office was quickly followed by her arrest on federal charges of corruption, is the face most associated with this chapter of Puerto Rico’s history. Rosselló appointed the controversial U.S. consultant to completely restructure PRDE under the guise of increased efficiency. The overhaul was to include the restructuring of regional administrative offices, massive school consolidations and closures, and the introduction of charter schools and vouchers. In this climate, the public Montessori movement confronted the threat of school closures, a push to convert to a charter network and the possibility that the Secretariat would be dissolved altogether. All of these battles were incredibly won.
More than a year before #rickyrenuncia protests forced the governor’s resignation, the public Montessori movement mounted fierce resistance to school closures. Closures are part and parcel of neoliberal education reforms globally, but the scale with which they were orchestrated in Puerto Rico is shocking. During Keleher’s tenure, 442 of roughly 1,300 schools—almost one-third of all public schools in Puerto Rico—were closed. The severity of scope was trumped only by the intensity of execution: closures were announced in March to be finalized by the end of the 2017-18 school year—the same year Hurricane María devastated the archipelago. On the list of proposed closures were 14 of 45 Montessori schools—one-third of the network. As soon as the closures were announced, collective governance practices were immediately activated to resist: the entire network would fight for their 14 sister schools. Forming a united front, an aggressive campaign was launched to denounce the closures in the media, to PRDE officials, and to Puerto Rican legislators and elected officials at all levels. Press conferences were convened and panels of students, teachers, and family members articulated the potentially devastating effects of their schools closing. (You can see compelling videos featuring student testimonies at: www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/estudiantesdefiendensumontessori-2417465.)
Parents, faculty and community leaders intensely lobbied local politicians, demanding that their schools remain open. Long negotiation processes with PRDE ensued, but the terms were clear: all Montessori schools must remain open, not a single school would be lost. By June 2018, the movement had successfully lobbied to keep all fourteen schools open.
In March 2018, Education Reform Law 85 ushered in charter schools for the first time in Puerto Rico’s history. Before the law passed, Keleher already planned to convert Montessori schools into a charter network and informed García Blanco of this plan in early 2017, arguing that charter status would offer greater allocation of resources as well as protect Montessori schools from massive, system-wide closures already underway. García Blanco’s response once again activated the principals of collective governance: the decision to convert to a charter network—or not—had to be made by the entire public Montessori school community. INE designed a consultation process in which information was gathered and school communities evaluated the pros and cons of conversion. Meetings were held with students, families, guides, directors and community leaders. A position declaration was drafted. After months of deliberation, the collective rejected conversion to a charter network for two main reasons. The notion that converting to charter status would offer an advantage over other schools profoundly contradicts the public Montessori movement’s philosophy of quality education for all. Charter status would also inherently compromise collective governance practices; under the charter system, the Secretariat would cease to exist and INE would become an authority charged with administering all schools in the network. The public Montessori model is based on collective decision-making among schools, INE and the Secretariat. The declaration asserted that the Montessori Secretariat was the best option for the movement’s optimal implementation within the public system.
Paradoxically, the legal establishment of the Secretariat in December 2018 was not directly impelled by the movement itself. As daily battles were being waged to keep schools open, children learning, and the project alive, a local senator visited a public Montessori school and was impressed. She revived a bill for the legal establishment of the Secretariat that had been lying dormant for over a year. García Blanco read about the senator’s efforts in the newspaper, and forwarded the news to INE’s school network. Primed by its experience against school closures, the entire community rallied once again. The movement activated community leaders, families, teachers, and local politicians in overwhelming support of the bill. As it made its way through legislature, Keleher proposed to include INE’s charter status as part of the law, but the movement lobbied politicians to reject this proposal. The intact bill made its way to the governor’s desk for final approval. For days, thousands of students, families, teachers, school directors, INE staff, and community leaders sent messages to the governor’s office in support of the Secretariat. Rosselló signed the bill into law on December 28, 2018.
In moments of extreme adversity, the public Montessori movement in Puerto Rico achieved remarkable education reform and demonstrated the profound impact traditionally disenfranchised groups can attain when they unite and fight for their collective demands. This commitment to social justice coupled with the power of families and school communities to organize as agents in the best interests of their children are inspiration for public Montessori more broadly.
- The public Montessori movement has been on the front lines, mobilizing school communities to demand government transparency, citizen participation, and educational equity
- The ultimate goal is to “build a system that offers a very good school for everyone, everywhere, so people have the knowledge they need to participate in democracy.”