A charter school turnaround in Maryland
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Communication with the district, trust in the teachers
Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School (CCMPCS), opened in Frederick, Maryland in 2012, offers Montessori education and Spanish language instruction for 318 students in three primary classrooms, six elementary classrooms, and a middle school.
As a public charter school, CCMPCS has faced the challenge of hiring teachers who are Montessori certified as well as licensed to teach in the state of Maryland. While teachers without Montessori certification have three years to begin their Montessori teacher training, most begin sooner. Regardless of training status, teachers are still responsible for providing a Montessori learning environment, as well as ensuring that each student builds the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the district and state requirements.
From probation to an example for others to follow
At charter renewal in November 2019, the Frederick County Board of Education (at the recommendation of the FCPS superintendent) placed the school on probation because of low student scores on the state’s standardized math tests. While 52.7 percent of CCMPCS students met the standard of proficiency in English Language Arts (ELA), only 19.8 percent of elementary students met the standard for math. When compared with traditional public elementary schools in the county, the Carroll Creek students fell 30 percentage points below in math performance. The superintendent also expressed concern that existing support systems in the school for students needing additional help, such as math intervention, weren’t strong enough.
The school board asked CCMPCS to return in a year with three things: a clear explanation of how the school supports students who do not meet grade level performance standards, assessments that measure student progress towards standards throughout the year, and a clear explanation of how teachers document student growth within the Montessori curriculum as well as the state standards.
One year later, CCMPCS returned to the school board some answers, and with data demonstrating higher student achievement on the district and state assessments. Based on scores from the previous school year, more than 70% of students in third, fourth and fifth grade were now meeting district benchmarks. Middle school scores showed even greater improvement, with more than 75% of students meeting district benchmarks. Middle school students outperformed some FCPS schools with similar population sizes, and the county average as a whole.
The Board members were impressed and delighted. One commented, “There’s a wonder in education that kind of fades from elementary to middle … but I think Montessori kind of keeps that wonder going through middle school, and I applaud you in that … I think it’s something we need to look into and bring into our middle schools.” The superintendent echoed the sentiment, encouraging other schools in the district to collaborate with CCMPCS to learn more about the Montessori method.
How did CCMPCS turn around their probation status so quickly?
Communication and collaboration with the school district proved to be key factors in meeting the school board’s goals for CCMPCS, as well as increasing the understanding of Montessori methodology among district personnel and school board members. Through a series of meetings with district and school staff, the district was able to refine and convey their expectations for student achievement, and CCMPCS was able to take these expectations and apply Montessori methodology in meeting them.
To start, the school’s principal, the Montessori teacher specialist, and the chair of the school’s parent board met with district representatives multiple times with the goal of finding an assessment that could be used by CCMPCS throughout the school year to determine students’ progress towards meeting grade level standards. Students at traditional schools take district benchmark assessments aligned to the district-paced curriculum. The working group determined that the district’s benchmarks would not serve CCMPCS students well due to the individualized instruction provided in the Montessori classroom. As a result of multiple meetings, the NWEA MAP assessment was identified as a measure that could be used to assess Montessori students’ progress on the state standards, while not requiring CCMPCS to follow the district’s suggested instruction and uniform pacing guide.
Next, the district’s intervention specialists visited the school and met with key staff to determine the most effective way to structure extra student support. During these meetings, it was determined that CCMPCS was already providing the appropriate support. What was needed instead was documentation of the support that was consistent with other schools in the district.
An added benefit of the meetings with district personnel was the opportunity for district representatives to learn more about Montessori. CCMPCS staff provided the district with a clear explanation of the Montessori method, its structure, and its tested ability to meet the child’s needs for optimal development. The district staff who visited also had the opportunity to tour the school, take a close look at the Montessori materials, and see Montessori environments in full swing. Each person walked away with a clearer understanding of the Montessori method.
Alongside the dedicated work with the district, Principal Marilyn Horan had confidence in the school’s teachers. The culture at CCMPCS is one where the teachers feel trusted to implement the Montessori method with fidelity while ensuring their students reach state performance standards. However, Mrs. Horan attributed the low scores, in part, to having to hire three new upper elementary teachers in 2018. One teacher came to the school with a rich Montessori teaching background in a private school, one had completed most of her lower elementary training and had taught a year in a private school, and one was a first-time classroom teacher.
Mrs. Horan had faith in them. They met weekly, collaborated in planning, and participated in lesson studies. The Montessori teacher specialist worked with the new teachers regularly, as well, offering support, mentoring and modeling. Over time, as each grew accustomed to teaching at CCMPS, scores rose. They did not teach traditionally, but continued to use Montessori practices and materials, and provided extra support and intervention where needed. They did their best to reach every child and to create Montessori environments where students could thrive, and it paid off. Mrs. Horan chalks up the subsequent improvement to teacher growth: “I would have expected scores to not be as good as we would have liked, but guess what? The next year they weren’t brand new anymore and look what happened to the scores—they went up significantly….[the teachers] dug in and they learned so much.” Schoolwide, the entire faculty worked on strengthening math instruction through middle school. An ad-hoc group began meeting after school to look at the alignment of the Montessori math curriculum with state standards, and to identify and share new resources across all levels.
While CCMPCS has begun to communicate with others in FCPS about the benefits of Montessori, and has turned around student achievement in the district’s eyes, there is still work to do.
In order to have a more coherent curriculum and consistent documentation across grade levels, CCMPCS will invest in the Montessori Compass digital record keeping program next year. Using this tool, teachers will be able to record students’ progress towards state standards alongside their progress in the Montessori curriculum. CCMPCS will also begin implementing the NWEA MAP Assessment. This tool, used by Montessori schools across the country, will allow the school to communicate student progress with data that align to the district’s standards.
With its charter renewed through 2025, CCMPCS will continue in its mission to instill a life-long love of learning in its students by providing an optimum Montessori learning environment, accessible to all students in the county, in which they can grow to become independent, confident, creative and caring members of the community and the larger world. And, the school will continue to educate the district’s superintendent and board, as well as other educators in the county, about the practices and benefits of Montessori.