Focusing on students at Breakthrough
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Adaptations that keep development at the center
Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School is a charter school in Washington, DC, founded by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector in 2016 and now serving 300+ children from three years old through 2nd grade. MontessoriPublic sat down with Executive Director Emily Hedin to talk about this year and plans for the fall.
MontessoriPublic: How did Breakthrough initially respond to the pandemic—have you been face-to-face with children at all?
Emily Hedin: Breakthrough closed completely on March 13, 2020. We remained fully virtual in the fall, and we are fully virtual still. We have a small cohort of students who come onsite to do their virtual learning from school, but all instruction has been delivered virtually, using SeeSaw, sending materials home, things like that.
MP: How did that work for the primary versus the elementary?
EH: In some ways, it was smoother with the lower elementary, because students are making the transition to abstract thinking, so there’s not as strong a need for visual and tactile materials. Elementary students are also developing the skills of dialogue and discussion, which is work that can continue in the virtual space. Where it’s more challenging is this: since we are a public school, there’s more pressure to move them along a spectrum of skill development. They are the students that do the high-stakes standardized assessments and for whom the city is carefully tracking growth. While moving their instruction to the virtual space was easier in some respects, there’s more stress involved with ensuring that students are accessing the lessons, content, and skills that they need to be.
MP: Did you have testing waivers?
EH: DC is suspending the PARCC testing for this year, and the DC Public Charter School Board is publishing “descriptive” School Quality Reports for schools rather than scoring and tiers. But even though there’s a one-year reprieve, I wouldn’t say that lightens the pressure, because those assessments will return, and we need to be sure our students will be successful on them when they do.
MP: How do the “tiers” work—and where does Breakthrough stand?
EH: We’re in Tier II, which is in the middle—Tier III is low performing, Tier II is middle performing, and Tier I is high performing. Tier III means you are on an improvement plan. We were Tier III in 2017-18, Tier II in 2018-19, and there was no ranking for 2019-20 or this year.
MP: What did you do to move up?
EH: A really careful review of the NWEA MAP assessment, and a thoughtful alignment with the Montessori scope and sequence—not straying from the Montessori, but understanding which lessons and materials lend themselves to students being ready to demonstrate certain skills.
MP: So what happens now? When do you get to go back, and what’s the plan?
EH: We will return to in-person instruction on April 19th, with almost 70% of our students, and continuing until June 16th. We’re pretty excited—it’s a tremendous amount of work to get ready, but we’re optimistic that it will be a positive experience for students. Three-year-olds will do two half-days a week, four-year-olds will do three half-days, and K through third grade will do four. They will have in-person instruction in the mornings and continue with asynchronous virtual learning in the afternoons.
MP: And for the fall?
EH: We haven’t begun to plan in earnest for September for two reasons. One, it’s all hands on deck to be ready for April 19th. And two, I don’t want to dive too deeply in to planning for next year until we’ve identified some lessons learned from this spring. Right now, we’re hypothesizing a great deal about students’ academic, social-emotional, and mental health needs. Once we’re back in the classroom, we’ll collect observational, qualitative data on their needs. And that will inform the approach in the fall. Also, we’ll get feedback from guides and assistants on the workload and the feasibility of what we’re asking them to do. Their instructional responsibilities haven’t changed, and when you add on to that the cleaning protocols and increased need to be instructing students on masking, social distancing, etc., we may be looking at a redefinition of the scope of teaching.
So before we dive too deep into what next year will look like, we want to see and hear from our staff about how the spring has gone.
MP: I know it’s controversial, but do you have an opinion on “learning loss”?
EH: My discomfort around the conversations about learning loss are around the scale of the issue. The beauty of Montessori is that we see each child as an individual. There are children who are losing ground. There are children who are not following the natural developmental progression that they would be if they had had access to the prepared environment. So there are students we need to focus a great deal of time and energy on, to be sure we are doing right by them. That we are helping them along their way, and they aren’t unduly hampered by the pandemic.
There are also children who have continued to learn during virtual learning, continued to develop skills and explore their own capabilities and interests.
So my discomfort around learning loss stems from blanket statements—that this pandemic was any one thing for students. I can’t say virtual learning was either a success or a failure at Breakthrough, because this pandemic did not have a uniform impact on all families and children. There have been families that have been profoundly inconvenienced by this pandemic, but have their basic needs met, or even have an excess of resources, and the health and well-being of their children was never seriously in jeopardy. And then we have families who have experienced tremendous volatility in their finances, housing, employment, access to resources, including food and housing. And we have families who have lost a great deal, who are experiencing grief and trauma. And in light of that, that does create obstacles to a child’s healthy, normal natural development.
So being the Montessorian that I am, each child’s story and needs are unique, and it’s absolutely our intention to marshal all their resources we need to best support the children who have been most adversely affected by the pandemic
MP: But it does sound like there are going to be some, say, five-year-olds, who didn’t explode into reading. What might you be able to do?
EH: You’re right, none of our threes and fours had access to the language rich environment to develop their phonological awareness to be ready to explode into reading and writing in the kindergarten year.
In the perfect world, all children would enter the prepared environment at three years old. But we’re a public school, so we accept children at all grades when there’s space available. So we’re taking in threes, fours, first graders who have never seen the Moveable Alphabet or Sandpaper Letters. They haven’t had the gift of time to really develop that strong base for language and literacy before coming to us. So we’ve been looking at—not how can we replace Montessori, but how can we provide additional scaffolding so that all children have access to Montessori? We’ve looked at things like Orton-Gillingham, Waseca, American Reading Company. These resources don’t diminish the child’s experience in the prepared environment—they don’t take away the freedom of choice and movement, and the gift of time, but they do provide additional resources to help bridge access to the children who did not have access to the environment and help them gain entry to the Montessori experience.
MP: Were there adaptations you might keep in place? Lessons learned?
EH: Literacy is an area where we learned a lot. In the virtual setting, we really took a structured approach to one-on-one and small-group instruction in core literacy skills. That’s not something that necessarily would have happened in the traditional Montessori environment. But we found that not only has it helped carry students through the year, but when we return, and we have students for whom the Montessori scope and sequence is not enough to help them become fluent readers, we have developed very specific detailed one-on-one interventions focused on building discrete skills to help students get to reading fluency.
Another area is family engagement. This year, I met with families weekly on Zoom. In live learning, I had physical touch points, but we only met monthly, and I don’t think I’m going back to that. Maybe interest will wane over time, but I think it’s been an incredible gift for families to get such an intimate look into their child’s education and our instructional process. Families are coming out of this with a much stronger understanding of Montessori than they had before the pandemic, and I want to leverage that, keep them at the table, keep them as thought partners, and continue to support their child’s education at home. The gap between parent and guide has shrunk, and I want to keep it that way.