Detroit Public Montessori
Detroit, Michigan. I don’t know what you know or think you know about Detroit, but I can tell you what Google thinks: here are some autocompletes for “Detroit is …”:
- Detroit is … abandoned buildings
- Detroit is … coming back
- Detroit is … dangerous
- Detroit is … not that bad
- Detroit is … a wasteland
There’s some truth in every one of these. Very briefly, and there have literally been books written about it, here’s a capsule history.
Settled in 1701, “the first European settlement above tidewater in North America” (Wiki), burned almost to the ground in 1805, a stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War and a rising hub of trade and industry after, modern Detroit took off in 1910 with Henry Ford, the Model T, and mass production. Industry quintupled Detroit’s population to 1.5 million between 1900 and 1930, brining an average of 100 new residents per day, every day, for thirty years. The city grew, and grew prosperous, and with the automobile, sprawled. The Great Depression was brutal in Detroit, but after WWII the city and the auto industry came roaring back for a 1945-1970 “Golden Age”, growing to a peak of 2 million by 1950.
But in the 1960s and 70s, segregation, inner city (and largely Black) poverty, race riots, further sprawl, and the auto industry decline took their toll. Whites fled to the suburbs, jobs disappeared, and population fell to 1.5 million by 1970, 1.2 million by 1980, and down to 700,000 — barely a third of its peak — in 2010. Abandoned houses, schools, and entire neighborhoods blighted the city, poverty withered lives, and criminal violence stalked the remaining citizens. That’s the Detroit of the ugly headlines and photo essays.
The population decline and the attendant tax revenue collapse, along with “decades of bad governance”, drove Detroit in 2013 to Chapter 9 bankruptcy — at $18.5 billion, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Retired bankruptcy judge Seven Rhodes led the city to a settlement which, while without doubt controversial, kept the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection from being sold to settle debts, and cut pensions and benefits much less than had been expected. (The Detroit Free Press has excellent coverage here.) Since then, Detroit has indeed begun a revival, investing in its urban core, and beginning to tackle some of its decades-old systemic issues.
Which brings us to schools. What you may have heard about the schools is what made the national news earlier this year: teacher sickouts protesting abysmal working conditions including rats, mold and flooding, as well as enormous class sizes and frozen wages. But there’s more to this story, too.
Detroit schools weren’t always the worst in the nation, and were even considered innovative during the booming 1920s. As city exploded and the automobile spread population out, hundreds of small neighborhood schools were built. But school construction lagged behind the population decline, and inertia plus parochialism kept schools open, and drove new construction even as enrollment dropped. Who wants to close the school at the heart of a neighborhood? Who wants to vote for their own school to be closed? Desegregation, White flight, deindustrialization, urban decay, and no small amount of mis-management and corruption gutted the school system and its finances, and by 1993, author Jerrey Mirel could chronicle the decline in The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-1981.
In 1994, Michigan passed a charter school law, and 14 Detroit charters launched in 1995, growing to 96 in 2014, competing with 103 public schools and serving more than half of Detroit’s roughly 100,000 schoolchildren. The state of Michigan took over Detroit Public Schools in 1999, returned control to the school board in 2005, and took it back over in 2009, as the system ran up a $730 million annual deficit and $3.5 billion in debt. In 2011, Dan Rather updated Mirel’s reporting with a two-hour broadcast, A National Disgrace. As the city transitioned through bankruptcy and revival, Detroit Public Schools continued to slide, until this very year, when the state approved a plan to split the district, with the old entity owning just the debt and the new one free to direct all of its resources to educating students. The interim emergency manager for the plan was the same Steven Rhodes who managed the city’s bankruptcy. He takes over from the previous emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who came to the job fresh from his stint as emergency manager for Flint, Michigan, during the lead poisoning crisis.
So that’s Detroit and Detroit Public Schools. The system is in truly dire conditions, but there is a re-organization plan on the table, and at least some people in the district earnestly and tirelessly working to make things better. DPS is in fierce competition with the charter schools (this New York Times piece tells the story), so they are eager for any innovation that might keep families from leaving or even pull them back in. There’s an internal proposals process for innovations, which has promoted various magnet and academy models, including an International Baccalaureate and dual-language immersion. This year, according to an article on Chalkbeat, district Curriculum Director (now Interim Superintendent) Alycia Meriweather heard about public Montessori programs in other states at an ASCD conference and asked, “Why can’t we do that?”
Detroit proper doesn’t have much Montessori: three or four schools in a city of 700,000. But surprisingly, the proposal took off. DPS Executive Director of Enrollment Steve Wasko told me that 50 teachers and principals gathered for a planning meeting, plotting out every aspect of the program — classrooms, teachers, curriculum, and parent engagement. Building staff had to put them out to lock the doors at 8:00pm. “We couldn’t get the teachers out of the room.” Merriweather asked the schools who would be willing to host a new program, and when 11 of the 97 schools said yes, the district knew this thing was real.
The district took the process seriously. Family engagement was extended to the 11 schools, to be sure the program would be a good fit for the community, and wouldn’t feel pushed on them. At one school, a parent came in on fire Monday morning after a parent survey had gone out, demanding to know why the school was moving to a “Catholic special education” model — but after some one-on-one conversation, she became a supporter. The district settled on seven classrooms at three locations — six Children’s Houses serving children starting at four years old, and one lower elementary. (Funding for three year olds in Detroit’s tight budget wasn’t available, and DPS is no longer a Head Start grantee, fallout from the political turmoil of the last five years.)
In the planning stages, “not too may people in the room knew too much about Montessori, beyond Googling,” Wasko told me. But Montessori parents and people with Montessori connections kept popping up. A state licensed Detroit native with Montessori training returned form Houston just in time for a job fair. Another teacher in the system already had a Master’s degree from the AMS program at Xavier.
The district connected with theNational Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) for informal consultation, and with Theo Papatheodoropoulos, the director of the Michigan Montessori Teacher Education Center (MMTEC) in the Detroit suburbs, an AMS teacher training center founded in 1969. Papatheodoropoulos is a prominent figure in public and private Montessori in Michigan, having started numerous schools himself. These resources helped the district build a model of Montessori fidelity including MACTE-accredited training, mixed-age classrooms, a three-hour work cycle, and more. Nine teachers are being trained (for seven positions, to provide a cushion and allow for expansion) at MMTEC and via the Institute for Guided Studies (IGS), and Wasko reported on the transformation teachers are undergoing — prayers and tears were mentioned — immersed in a group of adults talking about having their lives changed by the process. (I asked Wasko if the district had considered AMI, but with a September launch date in mind, just months away, and no local training center, it wasn’t under consideration.)
Funding for starting up (training, staffing, classrooms, etc.) comes from a three-year state innovation grant, and thereafter from DPS’ student allocation of about $7,500 per child. (As small as that sounds, before the debt restructuring, at least $1,200 of that was going just to interest payments.) Staffing includes an assistant and a trained teacher in every classroom, as well as a full time Montessori lead and curriculum developer, who will take the MMTEC training, and is already a Montessori mother of two children. Building principals will not be fully trained, but will attend the weekend sessions throughout the school year with teachers, and two of three are — as it turns out — Montessori parents as well.
The growth plan is to let school communities tell the district where and when to extend the program, the elementary at least is likely to expand to 5th grade. “We’ve heard examples of Montessori middle and high schools,” Wasko said, “but we want to grow at a pace we can support and keep up the level excellence.” On the other hand, with so little Montessori in the area, and no elementary, the district senses an opportunity. Wasko was surprised to learn that none of the many Detroit charters does Montessori, so if the district can get it right, they may be able to stake out the “excellent Montessori” territory and bring people back into the system.
Detroit, and Detroit public schools, face many deeply daunting challenges. And new Montessori teachers in urban, high-poverty schools face personal and professional challenges as daunting or more so. But the level of excitement, good will, and courage in the people involved was evident in my conversation with Wasko, and everyone is pulling for success, for the program and for the children trapped in a system that has failed many of them and that they didn’t create. I’ll be following the program, and hoping hard to be reporting on successes as they move along.
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.