New Howard Avenue Montessori, First step in MPS Montessori makeover?
August 1, 2012
Story and photos by Jay Bullock
If you blinked, you might have missed it—the rapid idea-to-implementation process now converting the Tippecanoe school building, 357 E. Howard Ave., into a brand-new Milwaukee Public Schools Montessori school.
The program was envisioned in May, outlined in a memo to administration on June 1, proposed at a Milwaukee Board of School Directors committee meeting on June 14, and approved in a unanimous vote by the full board on June 28. The new school’s principal, Phil Dosmann, longtime leader of Craig Montessori School, was appointed on July 26.
And next month, September, the school, known as the Howard Avenue Montessori School (until a permanent name is chosen), will enroll 120 three- and four-year-old children in a half-day kindergarten program (K3, K4). A major school transformation moved from conception to birth in just three months—something that just doesn’t happen in slow-moving MPS.
The creation of the school has focused attention on board member Meagan Holman, elected in 2011 from the district that includes Bay View and the Tippecanoe neighborhood around the new school. It was Holman who composed that June 1 memo outlining what the new school could be; however, she does not take credit for Howard Avenue.
“It was the superintendent’s idea,” Holman said, referring to MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton. “When we were looking at what to do with that building, he said, ‘What about Montessori there?’
“I said, ‘In 2013-2014?’
“He said, ‘Now,’ It was a curveball. We were able to figure out in a week that we had everything we needed [to start the school].” Howard Avenue is moving with surprising speed, in part because MPS was not expecting the building to be empty.
Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities moved from the building in fall 2011, joining Dover Street School in the former Fritsche Middle School. (Fritsche’s program was merged with nearby Bay View High School in 2010.) For the 2011-2012 school year, Wings Academy, a charter school that primarily enrolled special needs students, occupied the building, but an untenable financial situation forced Wings to close, suddenly making Tippe available.
However, additional Montessori schools were being planned for MPS before Howard Avenue. The Strategic Facilities Plan adopted by MPS last fall called for an expansion of Montessori into more areas of the district, although at the time, no new schools were approved. Holman, whose four children attend Fernwood, has been working with Montessori principals and parents on a strategic plan to expand the program’s reach. She also worked to convince Thornton of Montessori’s potential.
Third Bay View-area Montessori School
The Bay View area already has two Montessori schools. Downtown Montessori Academy, 2507 S. Graham St., is a school chartered by the city of Milwaukee, meaning it is a public school, but it is not part of the Milwaukee Public Schools. According to its website, DMA enrolls more than 125 students from four-year-old kindergarten through eighth grade.
Bay View’s other Montessori school, Fernwood, 3239 S. Pennsylvania Ave., is one of MPS’s top-performing schools. State test results show that in the last school year, Fernwood had more students scoring proficient or advanced in reading and math than the state average, let alone the average for MPS.
Fernwood also has a wait list of 139 three- and four-year-olds, according to the district.
Priority for enrollment at Howard Avenue will be given to Fernwood wait-list students, as well as students on the wait lists for the district’s other Montessori schools (Craig, Maryland Avenue, and MacDowell have wait lists), according to MPS. Enrollment will be done by lottery. The first round of the lottery was open to those who joined the wait lists during MPS’s “three-choice” open enrollment period in January 2012, when parents pick the top three schools they want their children to enroll in. Those joining the wait lists after that were entered in a second lottery for any remaining spaces. MPS expects the last enrollment letters to be sent by August 6.
Students from all over the city can enroll at Howard Avenue, but MPS indicated that students living near the school would also be given priority.
Students within a one-mile radius of the school will be expected to walk to school (all schools have such a “walk zone”). Students who live outside of a five-mile radius will need to be provided with transportation to and from school by their families. However, students who live between one and five miles from the school will be provided yellow bus service by MPS.
According to Principal Phil Dosmann, the school will serve its 120 students in three classrooms, running six half-day kindergarten sessions between 9am and 3:30pm. According to MPS, the district’s Recreational Department “will offer a fee-for-service wrap-around camp option for the other half of students’ days.”
Dosmann added that the three teachers required for Howard Avenue are already in place, and there are plans to add two more teachers in 2013-2014 when the school expands to include five-year-olds.
When MPS was granted federal stimulus money under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the district spent some of it to train 40 teachers in Montessori instructional methods, planning ahead for teacher retirements, and for school expansions already underway, such as at the Lloyd Barbee School, which began transitioning to Montessori in 2010-2011.
Certification training for a Montessori teacher takes a full year at the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, in Bay View, one of a number of accredited training programs around the country. Alternately, a teacher can be trained over three consecutive summers, according to the MIM website. Training costs $10,000 or more, but the district pays for its teachers’ training as long as they teach Montessori in MPS for three years.
In 2010-2011, MPS employed nearly 290 people, including 154 teachers and 54 paraprofessionals, in eight Montessori schools serving 2862 students.
These figures come from an audit of MPS’s Montessori programs, in particular its four oldest—Craig, Fernwood, Maryland Avenue, and MacDowell—completed in June 2012.*
The audit also identified other funding challenges for Montessori beyond teacher training, such as the cost of materials specific to Montessori, for example, and the curriculum’s requirement for a Montessori-trained paraprofessional in every classroom.
But perhaps the biggest cost comes from enrolling three-year-olds in kindergarten: The state of Wisconsin does not reimburse MPS at all for K3 students. K4 students are reimbursed at a reduced rate. Further, the audit indicated Montessori schools can’t qualify for Head Start funding to cover K3 students, or for SAGE funding, which is designed to keep classes at a specific size.
Howard Avenue is moving with surprising speed in part because MPS was not expecting the building to be empty.
That means Howard Avenue, which will enroll only K3 and K4 this fall, will be opening with and operating on funds drawn largely from what MPS calls “board funds,” money from property tax or grant sources, rather than state funding, which will be minimal. Those board funds could have been available to other schools, instead of invested in starting the school. The audit estimated the cost of starting a Montessori program—in general, not specifically Howard Avenue—at $135,000 in its first year and up to $420,000 over six years.
Holman said that by 2013-2014, with K5 students enrolled at full state reimbursement, and K4 students receiving their partial reimbursement, the school will be self-sufficient. Further, Holman believes that the cost will be made up in future years. “Because Montessori schools have a higher retention rate,” she said, “the expense of K3 is paid off quicker than you’d think.”
The audit noted this tendency for Montessori students to remain in the same school from year to year. “Montessori programs had higher attendance and stability rates than the district for both elementary and middle grades,” it said. “In addition, mobility rates were also lower than the district averages.”
According to the audit, Montessori schools retain more of their students after five years than any other early childhood program in MPS.
Superintendent Thornton has brought a greater focus on “market share” to MPS. Many education observers see Milwaukee as the most “open marketplace” of schooling options in the country. The city’s public schools have been losing students for decades to private voucher schools, to non-MPS charter schools—including Downtown Montessori Academy, and to suburban schools through Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy.
Bob DelGhingaro, the district’s Chief Accountability and Efficiency Officer, said that MPS isn’t going to be able to do much more cutting to meet its tight budget restrictions. Instead, MPS has to maintain enrollment or start growing again. “Growing market share is also critical for MPS due to shrinking state dollars and the voucher program,” he said.
“Our Montessori programs are in high demand,” DelGhingaro noted, citing the potential for Montessori to boost MPS’s market share.
Priority for enrollment at Howard Avenue will be given to Fernwood wait-list students, as well as students on the wait lists for the district’s other Montessori schools.
MPS auditors addressed this issue too. They noted that almost 50 percent of the students on Craig Montessori’s 2010-2011 wait list, who were not admitted to Craig, elected not to enroll in another MPS school. That was a loss of about 45 students—and the accompanying state funding for those students—who left the district because they did not get into their Montessori school of choice.
If nothing is done to address the Montessori schools’ wait lists, which are growing every year, the auditors warn that MPS “may see a further loss of student enrollment because there are simply not enough seats available to address the demand at these particular schools.”
One such loss may have been Dave Nelsen’s son. Nelsen, a Bay View resident, has a child newly enrolled in Howard Avenue’s K3 program, selected from the Fernwood wait list, where he was number 58.
Nelsen considered a private K3 preschool for his son this fall, and if he hadn’t gotten into Fernwood for K4 in 2013, leaving the district was a possibility. “We also would have looked at other MPS elementary schools in the area,” he said. “Had we not gotten into MPS Montessori and not liked any of those schools, we would have considered moving.”
Montessori Attracts Suburban Kids to MPS
After trying to get her daughter into Fernwood’s K4, Anna Paradowski got a letter stating that she wasn’t accepted, so she enrolled her in Willow Glen in St. Francis, she said. Paradowski lives in St. Francis. But when she learned of the new Montessori program, she enrolled her daughter in Howard Avenue’s K4 program, instead of Willow Glen.
Montessori schools can’t qualify for Head Start funding to cover K3 students, or for SAGE funding.
The same is true for St. Francis resident Danielle Simonovic, whose son who was number 29 on Fernwood’s K4 wait list, the very bottom. She applied for her son’s admission to Howard Avenue, and was accepted. “He would have gone [to Willow Glen] had this opportunity not come our way,” Simonovic said. “I am beyond thrilled that he is going to be able to be in the Montessori program.”
So Howard Avenue is capturing at least two children from Willow Glen, bringing state funding into MPS from a suburban district in a reversal of the usual pattern.
The academic success of Milwaukee’s Montessori schools is the big attraction. The MPS audit of the district’s longest-running Montessori programs goes on at some length about the schools’ success.
Last year Fernwood and Maryland Avenue, the audit said, outperformed MPS “on all subtests (math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies) and all grades.” Craig was not far behind them, and MacDowell beat the average on half of all the tests given in 2011-2012.
Fernwood was singled out in the audit for outperforming state averages on most tests that year as well, a rarity in MPS.
Beyond the MPS audit’s findings, others have touted success in Milwaukee’s Montessori schools. In a 2006 issue of Science, a peer-reviewed research journal, Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest wrote that students who were selected in the lottery to attend Craig Montessori school outperformed peers who entered the lottery but were not selected, whether those peers stayed in MPS or left for suburban districts or private schools.
“By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in more positive interaction on the playground, and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control,” the researchers reported. “They also showed more concern for fairness and justice. At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.”
It must be noted that both Craig, praised by Science, and Fernwood, singled out for its success by the MPS audit, have a far smaller proportion of non-white, special-needs, and low-income students than the district as a whole, and than other Montessori schools. In recent years, MPS closed or severely cut back Montessori programs whose enrollment looked more like the district average: Montessori High School was closed at the end of last year after consistently receiving below-average scores, for example. MPS has removed the upper grade levels from Kosciuszko in recent years because of low enrollment.
However, Montessori success is not limited to whiter, wealthier students.
The June 2011 edition of “Milwaukee Today: An Occasional Report of the NAACP” reported that African American students particularly benefit from Montessori education. Using 2009-2010 state test results, the report’s authors noted that African American students in Milwaukee’s Montessori schools tested as proficient or advanced at almost twice the rate of their peers in Milwaukee’s non-Montessori schools.
This may be because African American students learn better in a Montessori-style classroom. A paper prepared for the American Montessori Society last fall, by researchers Horace R. Hall and Angela K. Murray, explained, “There exist multiple in- and out-of-school connections between Montessorian pedagogy and the social and educational needs of black children.”
The “Montessorian pedagogy” is a deeply constructionist philosophy of education; that is, Montessori practitioners believe that children and students learn best by interacting with and acting upon the environment around them. Rather than sitting still in an assigned seat and listening to a teacher deliver planned content, Montessori students are encouraged to find what interests them and pursue it in collaboration with their peers. Students learn in multi-age classrooms and work with specialized materials.
Developed by Maria Montessori in Italy a century ago, “the Montessori philosophy and curriculum focuses on natural child development,” said Joe DiCarlo, principal of Maryland Avenue Montessori.
“It’s a whole-life approach to education, with developmental levels geared toward the natural inclinations of children, and a focus on what children are naturally geared toward,” DiCarlo said, adding, “The regular classroom environment is not set up to allow that to happen.”
Bobby Tanzilo, a Montessori parent and member of Maryland Avenue Montessori School’s school governance council, said Montessori is “self-discipline from the get-go. You get a child at three and teach them that they are as responsible for their cognitive development as the teacher. They have eight years of self-guidance.” He added, “It’s not crazy magic; it’s really fundamental stuff.”
Expanding the availability of Montessori’s standardized curriculum should appeal to MPS administration, said Catherine Loss, Assistant Principal in Charge at Lloyd Barbee. In the last two years, the district has concentrated on standardizing its curricular offerings, by mandating a Comprehensive Literacy Plan and a Comprehensive Math/Science Plan in most schools.
“Teacher training is standardized,” Loss said, “and that’s why it’s so replicable. The materials and training are the same.”
Phil Dosmann agreed. “Bring in any kid from any [Montessori] school into any Montessori classroom, and they’ll be at home,” he said. This may serve MPS well since Howard Avenue may not be able to accommodate students all the way through eighth grade. Dosmann said the building has only eleven classrooms available, and a capacity to hold 180 students, only 60 more than the 120 students it expects to start with this September.
Older students, both Dosmann and board member Holman said, might be able to find space at Fernwood or another existing Montessori school—or perhaps at a new Montessori school as the district considers further expansion.
Montessori does prepare adolescent students for transition to non-Montessori high schools; MacDowell is the only Montessori school in MPS offering grades 9-12. There are persistent rumors of one or more additional Montessori high schools being considered for MPS, but as no formal strategic plan is in place for expansion, nothing is certain beyond Howard Avenue’s opening with K3 and K4 students this year.
Howard Avenue Just the Beginning?
Holman stressed that decisions about grade levels ultimately offered at Howard Avenue, like a final decision about the school’s name, would be made later by the school’s community.
However, Howard Avenue is likely to fit into a larger plan for Montessori growth in MPS, guided by the steering committee made up of Holman, Montessori parents, and current Montessori school principals. The group was not expecting to have a new school to work with this fall, and instead had been planning a Montessori symposium for October 6, where they expected to talk up the program and solicit input on a strategic plan for Montessori growth in Milwaukee.
That growth will be spearheaded by Dosmann, who in addition to being principal of Howard Avenue is being asked to take on special assignments, like recruiting Montessori teachers to come to Milwaukee.
As Holman put it, he’s going to “quarterback Montessori expansion.”
Holman thinks expanding the Montessori elementary option is the exact right thing to do, given what MPS expects of its middle and high school students. “MPS is putting so much money and energy into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and Project Lead the Way, which is asking kids to do teamwork and project-based learning.” Holman said that “is what kids do in first grade in Montessori.”
She explained that non-Montessori students, who spend more time at teacher-led seatwork and less time cooperating with and critiquing their peers, have a harder time transitioning to project-based learning in later grades. “Montessori is the best preparation for the kind of work we want them to be doing,” she said. “This city is the right place to do it, and [expanding] Montessori is the right thing to do here,” she said.
* “Evaluation of Montessori Programs, Audit 2012-51, June 2012.” “Read the audit here.
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