SXSWedu
9:11 am
Thu March 6, 2014

Why More Public Schools are Adopting the Montessori Model

Disclosure: KUT is a sponsor of SXSWedu.

There are a lot of different opinions for how to educate children. Many are being discussed in Austin this week as part of the SXSWedu conference.

One method gaining popularity in public and charter schools is the Montessori model.

It’s an individualized, structured method in which children control their education with the help of a teacher, rather than a teacher standing in front of a classroom teaching everyone the same idea or subject.
This fall, a Montessori charter school opening up in East Austin is aiming to enroll low-income students.

But as public schools, they must adhere to state and federal standards, while staying true to their unique methods.

When Adam Klaybor was at SXSWedu last year, he heard a lot of buzzwords thrown around at panel discussions and seminars.

“Project based learning, differentiated learning, personalized instruction," Klaybor rattles off. "All these terms, flipped classrooms. And so many times I wanted to yell, ‘That already exists (laughs)! That’s been happening for 100 years!’”

Klaybor is talking about the Montessori model, where he spent most of his elementary and middle school years in Montessori schools in Houston.

“There was no grades and you really had to learn time management," Klaybor says. "They’d say, “Ok, here’s a month’s worth of work, we’ve kind of broken it down for you and structured it, but it’s kind of on you to figure out when you’re going to do that," he says.

Now, Klaybor works for Montessori Records Xpress, a company that helps Montessori schools manage records and lesson plans.  In Montessori schools, teachers – known as guides – monitor student progress and create lesson plans, but each student has their own lesson plan and students choose how they want to spend their day.

Keith Whitescarver, Director for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, says in the last ten years, there’s been an increase in public Montessori schools.

One reason: good press.

“There’s been mention of people in the tech field who have Montessori backgrounds," Whitescarver says.

Who, you ask? Oh, just the founders of Google, Wikipedia and the CEO of Amazon, for starters.

Whitescarver says the charter school movement is another reason for the recent growth. This fall, the first Montessori Charter school will open in Austin.  Usually, students are in the same classroom for three years.

“When they first enter classroom, they’re the babies," explains the founder and superintendent, Sara Cotner. "They get to see mentors, they learn from older children. They get to see older materials. It builds their motivation. Next year they’re middle child. They know more, they feel more comfortable. They begin to practice leadership. By that third leadership they’re ready to assume full leadership in the classroom. And it builds sense of self and self-confidence tremendously.” 

Nationwide there are now about 450 public Montessori schools.

“Education is heading in the direction that Montessori that started to go over a century ago. People are clamoring for individualized, personalized learning," Cotner says.

But Klaybor with Montessori Records Xpress says that means Montessori programs have had to change the way they promote their schools.

“There’s now district standards, state standards, federal standards and all these mandates coming down and Montissori is now catching up to say, ‘Oh, okay. We need to speak this language so we can communicate the success of Montessori in something that we can all understand," Klaybor says.

Since they’re public schools, that means the teachers have to meet state requirements and have Montessori training, which can be an intensive, two year process.

“Making sure you have highly qualified teachers that can fully implement the Montessori program is a real challenge right now," , says Whitescarver. "It's quite rigorous to get Montessori training. You have to go to a separate school, separate institution. It's not taught in schools of education."  

But Sara Cotner says just because her new charter school – Montessori for All – will follow state standards, that doesn’t mean it’ll adopt the same practices as traditional public schools—especially when it comes to standardized testing.

“The biggest mistake we’ve made under No Child Left Behind is thinking students prepare for standardized tests by taking practice tests," she says. 

At Montessori for All, teachers will be responsible for making sure state standards are woven in to the material students are connecting with in and out of the classroom.

"If children learn to love reading, they are going to read all day long, in line, in the car, read when they go home and their reading levels will skyrocket. Then the STAAR test isn’t an issue.”

Overall, there are 36 public Montessori schools in Texas. Right now most of them are in Houston.