NCMPS enters its next 3-year cycle
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Where we’ve been, and where we’re going
by Sara Suchman
With an explosion of interest in public Montessori, it can be hard to remember that just nine years ago there was no unifying movement for the public sector. Public Montessori schools across the country were mostly isolated, with little connection to peers or access to expertise targeting their unique challenges. National organization membership consisted almost exclusively of independent schools. Where were the public programs and what were their needs and characteristics? A reflection on NCMPS’s history sets the stage for the future.
Strength in community
The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) stepped into this landscape in 2012. Under a generous three-year private donation made to the American Montessori Society, our focus was primarily on finding, observing, and convening existing schools. We visited family centers, and both district and charter schools, across the country from Puerto Rico to Washington state, talking to administrators, trainers, and teachers, listening for the greatest strengths and needs. Coming out of that listening tour, NCMPS dove deep into two branches of sector-building work.
First, to convene and communicate amongst disparate players, we worked with other national Montessori organizations to launch Teach Montessori and the Montessori Census, and we coordinated with Dennis Shapiro’s family to adopt The Public School Montessorian, and continue its reach as MontessoriPublic. (Shapiro had published the paper for 25 years before his passing, and many in the public field mourned both his death and the loss of a publication with public Montessori news.)
Teach Montessori serves as a central location for learning about training, finding training centers, and posting for jobs. The Montessori Census collects data about public and private schools, raises visibility by literally putting the schools on a map, and serves families, school developers, researchers, and advocates. MontessoriPublic, sitting comfortably between newspaper and newsletter, brings a readership of thousands together to learn from peers and leaders in public Montessori schools.
Second, we heard loud and clear the need for tools to support Montessori implementation, and the need for accurate assessments to give quality feedback on classrooms and programs, in order to move forward strategically and cohesively. With a firm commitment to research-based solutions, NCMPS developed and piloted the Developmental Environment Rating Scale (DERS), a classroom assessment instrument, and the Essential Elements Rubric for Montessori in the Public Sector (EER), a whole-school continuous improvement tool.
People, tools, schools
Teaching has never been an easy profession, and Montessori teachers in public schools face a special set of challenges, staying true to a program that centers children while meeting standardized accountability demands that, simply put, do not. The next phase of the work was a clarion call to develop systems, tools, and capacity around how to do this work—a focus on People + Tools in the name of strong schools. Through close work with teachers and leaders, the Montessori Coaching model, Montessori Assessment Playbook, Fundamentals for School Leaders, Child Study, Lesson Study, and the Montessori Teacher Residency, among others, came out of this period of field research and iteration.
2020 was a transformative year, as the impact of the pandemic and long overdue attention to racial and social justice asked us to be explicit about why we do the work we do—to excavate and investigate assumptions we may not have previously shared even with ourselves.
At NCMPS, we are clear with ourselves and others that though Montessori can be a liberatory pedagogy, this is not a given. For public Montessori to reach its potential, for it to do justice to the children and families behind the rich histories, cultures, and knowledge in its diverse classrooms, we need to center this intentionality.
Against this backdrop, NCMPS’ Board and Staff, with the help of input from many stakeholders, completed a strategic vision to guide us through our next stage of development as a national organization and our next cycle of work. This process resulted in deeply intertwined Vision, Mission, and Purpose:
Vision: NCMPS joins a growing community of educators, Montessori and non-Montessori, who envision a world where every community has equitable access to sustainable, just, and humanizing public education that empowers families, students, and teachers to flourish.
Mission: We work towards this vision by leveraging our expertise in public Montessori to transform lives, cultivating equitable, accessible, sustainable, and humanizing public education.
Purpose: We believe equitable, accessible, sustainable public Montessori programs have the power to disrupt racism, poverty, and structural inequality and transform lives and societies for peace and justice.
How did we land on these words and what do they mean to me and for us at NCMPS? Montessori offers a humanizing education—an education that takes into account the reality, culture, and lived experiences of each student. Its transformative power is immense. And, to reach it, we need to be intentional within our own selves, our organization, and our communities to walk towards equity, access, and sustainability.
When a public school looks markedly different from the independent school down the street, that’s not equity. When a student in the classroom feels unseen, unknown, or worse, that’s not an equitable classroom. Public schools may be more accessible than independent schools, but when only families “in the know” can access the school, or the Montessori school is zoned for wealthy neighborhoods, or the teachers aren’t prepared to recognize and meet the students’ full selves, that’s not equitable access. And, if teachers turn over, leadership is a turnstile, and the school falters and fails—that is, if the work and then the school are not sustainable—a failing or closed school is about the biggest inequity around.
How we do it — three strategic levers
Through our communications channels and convenings, NCMPS continues to build, promote, and support a robust national ecosystem of public Montessori so that new and existing schools, experienced Montessori educators, and those being introduced for the first time, are held and flourish through networked community and resources. Outside of Montessori, the depth of this community shows researchers, funders, districts, charter authorizers, legislators and government offices that Montessori is for real and is here to stay… and grow.
And grow it must. NCMPS promotes and supports the development of new public Montessori schools and programs because the first step to access is having a public Montessori school available in a neighborhood.
And, numbers don’t mean much without quality and sustainability. NCMPS grounds its support in academic, community, and field-based research to deliver tools, training, and technical assistance to support strong, equitable, and sustainable public Montessori schools and programs. NCMPS works side-by-side with partners to build capacity with optimism and hope for the future.
Strength in community, full-circle
NCMPS was born out of a commitment specifically and exclusively to public Montessori schools. We study public schools, we hire from public schools, and we serve public schools. We bring over 100 years of cumulative experience in public schools and we draw on the knowledge and wisdom of the broader community. We come from a range of training traditions and lived experiences, and we join and honor you in sharing yours. We are united in a spirit of continuous learning, we are committed to sharing what we learn, and we welcome your support in holding us accountable to our mission.
When, as a community, we can make equitable Montessori both accessible to communities and sustainable for educators, the future is bright. We aren’t at the beginning of Montessori in the public sector, nor are we at the end. We are in the middle of a fabulous journey and are so glad to be on it with you.
Sara leads and directs the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
Sara holds an MAT in ESL from the School for International Training, an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At Harvard, Sara worked in organizational leadership and school reform and her research examined the intersection of learner-centered education methods (including Montessori!) and government-mandated standards and testing. Sara has served on the founding and governing boards of Breakthrough Montessori Public Charter School in Washington, DC and as co-clerk of the Community Anti-Racist Anti-Bias Alliance for her daughter’s school.
Sara’s interest in education began when, as a child, she moved between eight different traditional, progressive and Montessori schools over the course of 11years. A passionate student of teaching and learning, Sara began her career as an elementary math and computer teacher and went on to teach math and ESL in both independent and public schools in the US and abroad (Japan, Thailand and Mexico). She has served as a Middle School Director and Director of Curriculum. She taught and supervised in Harvard’s teacher education program and directed the Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy, a partnership between Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Cambridge Public Schools.