Back to the classroom at Lee
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Returning to in-person learning brings challenges, opportunities
Lee Montessori, short for Lee Public Montessori Charter Schools, operates two public charter Montessori schools in Washington DC. MontessoriPublic has reported on Lee before, most recently in the Fall 2020 issue (Learning COVID lessons at Lee), where we spoke with East End campus Assistant Head of School Rachel Kimboko about the school’s adaptations to the pandemic. We connected back up with Kimboko for this issue to talk about how things went this year and the outlook for the fall, and she brought Director of Equity and Engagement Betsy Romero, Director of Student Support Denise Miles, and Brookland campus Assistant Head of School Karli Hurlebaus into the conversation.
Miles and Romero shared their own perspectives on the adaptations at Lee beginning in the spring of 2020. “The spring offered a huge learning opportunity,” Kimboko said. “Like many Montessori programs, we had to very quickly stand up a lot of digital learning platforms.” Lee, like many schools, had at first expected to be back in person in the fall, but when it became clear that that wouldn’t be happening, both campuses launched an intensive program of planning curriculum, getting staff and families on board with various platforms and technology, and a coordinated virtual family education program. (These elements are described in more detail in the Fall 2020 issue of MontessoriPublic.)
I asked Romero about equity disparities in access to technology and remote learning. The school was intentional about assessing families’ needs for technology. Because Lee doesn’t use a lot of computers in their Montessori classrooms, they couldn’t expect families to necessarily have access to or fluency with, for example, laptops and webcams. Some families just might not have those resources, and some families may have chosen Montessori precisely because of the lesser use of technology for younger children. Lee worked hard to build up an inventory of laptops to share, which wasn’t easy—“the entire world was trying to get Chromebooks!”
Language barriers compounded technology barriers in some cases. Bilingual staff stepped up to support families, translating and even modeling, and teaching families who came into the building to pick up laptops and learn new platforms and skills. The school launched a portal for families to log in to where they could then access platforms such as SeeSaw, Google Classroom, HeadSprout, and STMath. “For families that barely used email, this was a lot,” Romero said. (Nationally, just 7% of Americans report that they do not use the internet, but that percentage is higher among Black Americans (9%), older adults (25%), and people earning less than $30,000 per year. When you consider the challenges faced by a family where the primary daytime caregiver might be an older, non-working family member, you can imagine some of the difficulties faced.)
I asked if the detailed curriculum and family engagement program Lee implemented in the fall had raised family awareness and appreciation of the Montessori approach now that it was in their living rooms. “Yes—and…” was the response. “We’re grateful that families have fallen in love, at a deeper level, with Montessori, and that they understand the beauty of the Montessori method and how it helps children learn.” But with the return to in-person learning, they will lose some of that access and interaction they may have enjoyed. But really what’s happening is a return to the classroom-based model, with lessons, choices, and uninterrupted work cycles, that drew them to Montessori in the first place.
Kimboko pointed out that as many as half of the East End children (where there are only primary students so far) haven’t set foot in a Montessori classroom in a year and a half, if at all, since they started in fall 2019 or enrolled as new children this year. So there will be an adjustment period for them as they adapt to a new environment.
So what happens now? Students will be back face-to-face on May 3rd, two weeks after Spring Break. That date was set back when the school thought they might need to allow for a quarantine for families that may have traveled over break, and before widespread vaccination was seen as likely. However, it won’t be a completely cold start—since February, Lee has offered classrooms where children can come to the building for virtual learning, largely for children that had experienced more challenges—academic, logistical, etc.—with virtual learning. And Lee has offered “academy style” classrooms at each level, where some students have been able to come in one day per week to pilot a hybrid model, with social distancing, masks, and other protocols. After May 3rd, school will continue with half-class cohorts attending school for two full days per week at a time, with a cleaning day in between.
I asked the team about so-called “learning loss,” and any assessments they may be using to see what additional needs children may have. The school has been using the DESSA social-emotional assessment all year to gauge how children are doing in that area. For academic assessment, Lee uses NWEA MAP, and will do another round in May. They have found these tools useful to predict how children will do. As the person who oversees special education and interventions, Miles said, “I’ve been in a lot of conversations about perceived learning loss. Everyone has lost learning, so it’s just a different state of being. There are opportunities to make up some of that time, but right now it’s about making sure we go slow to go fast, checking on everyone’s emotional health, re-engaging them in structures, and encouraging them to love learning in person. But if wellness isn’t in place, we know learning becomes extremely more difficult.”
Romero offered an equity perspective: “Sometimes we tend to forget that we’re still in a pandemic, and the standards are the same, which isn’t realistic. Everyone’s 24 hours aren’t the same, and everyone’s approach to learning at home isn’t the same. We have single parent-families, working families with three children, etc. We’re trying to be sure we’re being graceful with families—and staff! This has been hard on them too. So we’re really looking at how we’re prioritizing self-care and wellness, for children, families, and staff. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
I pressed a little on academics and the equity issue. If the so-called “achievement gap” is better thought of as an “opportunity gap”, surely not everyone had the same opportunities this year. What can be done about that to be sure those children don’t fall further behind? Miles addresses this: “We’re working on recovery planning—what does recovery look like across the board? We’re using Child Study, and we sometimes say ‘everyone needs their own action plan.’ How do you think about that in a way that doesn’t totally overwhelm the system.” She talked about how to use special education resources, and possibly a summer program in collaboration with other DC Montessori schools. DC’s Mayor has called for a full return to school in the fall. If that happens, maybe beforecare and aftercare could support “recovery” of academics—of course, it would need to be made accessible to all families who need it. Romero said that her fear as a parent and educator was that “we might put too much focus on academics, not on relationship building.” Virtual learning has taken a toll on those skills, and children will need to relearn them before they can really advance their academic learning.
I asked if there are “silver linings” from this pandemic year. What did they learn that might be carried forward after this year? Miles speculated about how schools, like other businesses coming out of the pandemic, might explore how some level of remote work might be possible—virtual staff meetings maybe? And Kimboko added that this could work for families as well: “We’ve learned we can have effective meetings virtually, and it can literally make the difference for someone attending a FTA meeting or family night. Nothing beats being in person and getting to see the lesson being given, but there are things we can do. I think it has forced us to really distill down to what is essential in the curriculum, and what experiences really meet children’s developmental needs?”
Finally, I asked, “How did Montessori in the world do this year, not just at Lee?” Like many families who were able to work from home—which was a privilege not everyone enjoyed—Romero valued being home with her children, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Miles said her daughter was already pretty self-directed from her Montessori experience, and she was able to maintain that and stay engaged with virtual education. And Brookland Assistant Head of School chimed in at the end
“How did Montessori do? The best we could with what we were given. I’ve seen a lot of people rise to challenges that they didn’t know they could, and really excel and make beautiful things happen. As much as we could, we tried to keep children’s best interests, and how we know they learn, centered, even though we had to make accommodations. But we did a good job of asking, every time we made a decision, is this the best thing we can do for children right now? And as long as we kept asking that question, we came pretty close to a yes.”
Director of Equity and Engagement Betsy Romero, Director of Student Support Denise Miles, East End Assistant Head of School Rachel Kimboko and Brookland campus Assistant Head of School
Karli Hurlebaus were generous with their time.