Public, Private, or Something in Between? A New Model for Montessori Schools
We usually think of Montessori schools as one of two things: public or private. The popular image is probably the private (or “independent”), tuition-based school with annual costs of $10,000 and up, serving mostly affluent families. These schools sometimes offer financial aid, but, as generous as that may be, it typically helps just a handful of school families who may still have incomes above the U.S. household median of about $53,000 per year, and makes up a small percentage of the school budget. Tuition is often $1,000 per month or more, so even with financial aid, it’s pretty far out of reach for even the median family. Good intentions on the part of private schools notwithstanding, the perception that they are serve mostly the affluent is justified. Montessori school families in the 4th quintile of household income (between $68,000 and $112,000) may not think of themselves as affluent, but they are well above the median. And likely a good many private Montessori families are in the 80% to 95% range of income ($112,000 to $206,000) or more.
Public (district, magnet, and charter) schools are typically free of charge, of course, although “activity fees” and the like have a way of creeping in. But they come with issues of their own: it’s not easy to just go and start one up, and the environment of constraints and regulations can make it challenging to implement high fidelity Montessori, even though fidelity is strongly associated with student outcomes.
But there’s another model out there: Tuition-based schools that are explicitly oriented towards access for families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, serving many more low-income and underrepresented families than the typical private school. Four of these “tuition-based, access-oriented” schools, in Atlanta, Georgia; Providence, Rhode Island; Haverhill, Massachusetts; and Columbia, Missouri are profiled here
Grow Montessori on Atlanta’s west side is one such school. Founded by theology student, social activist, and AMI Montessori Primary guide Emily Hayden, Grow is a nonprofit grassroots community organization with a mission to “make a transformative impact in Atlanta’s Historic Westside by educating children, empowering families, and enhancing community life.”
This fall, Grow is entering its fourth year as a fully-licensed, community-based private non-profit Montessori child care center serving 30 children from birth to six in a Nido, a Toddler Community, and a small Primary. Grow is an organic part of the community — staff live in the area, services such as landscaping and maintenance are locally sourced, and the school is active in local politics and the neighborhood association. Hayden thinks of the program as a school but also a catalyst, sending ripples of hope, vibrancy, and stewardship out into the community.
As a private school, funding is tuition-based, and Hayden emphasized the need to attract and retain dynamic, qualified staff, as well as keeping the lights on, and to charge a fee commensurate with the quality of service Grow provides. She also wanted to avoid undercutting local daycares. At the same time, it’s part of Grow’s mission to offer Montessori to local families for whom tuition is far out of reach. Currently, small private gifts provide support for speech services and social-emotional support, and Hayden hopes to attract more community-based funding. The area is gentrifying, so some families can and do pay full tuition, while others are discounted up to 50%. Georgia offers low-income child care support (CAPS), but families must apply individually, restrictions apply, and so far Hayden has found it more effective to seek private support.
Hayden said that being part of the community is the most important part of the work for her. “There’s something qualitatively different about putting your school where there isn’t a built-in clientele for it, and doing the work of broadcasting this as an alternative — and trying to take it to the people, literally.”
Montessori Community School of Rhode Island
Montessori Community School of Rhode Island (MCS RI) in Providence, Rhode Island, is another grassroots, tuition based Montessori school with an explicit mission of socio-economic diversity and financial support to make tuition affordable. Founder Amy Borak took Montessori 0-3 training, taught in a toddler classroom, earned her MSW from Simmons College, worked as a social worker for nine years, and founded her first school in 2011, with a view from the beginning towards making Montessori accessible for low-income families.
Like Grow Montessori, MCS RI is intentionally located in the community it serves. Providence itself is a somewhat typical post-industrial northeastern city, prosperous before WWII, in decline through the 1970s, attempting a renaissance since then, and hosting a diverse (just under 50% White), mixed-income (well below state and national averages, with pockets of wealth) population. The South Side, where the school is located, is majority Hispanic, 24% Black, with a third of its families below the poverty line and/or on public assistance—not where you might expect to start up a Montessori school.
MCS RI serves twelve children from eighteen months to three years in its toddler program, eighteen more three to six year olds in Children’s House, and offers after school care as well. Borak has a vision of growing to lower and upper elementary, using available space in the school’s three story brick building, as well as an art and music studio and a rooftop garden, and Phase II of a capital campaign is underway.
MCS RI makes explicit its mission of accessibility: “At Montessori Community School of RI we believe that finances should not be an obstacle to providing your child with a quality Montessori education.” The school aims for roughly a third of families paying full tuition, a third supported by school-based financial aid, and a third receiving Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services subsidy. Like Hayden in Atlanta, Borak has found the DHS subsidy complex to navigate. The subsidy phases out at $54,000 for a family of 4 — 225% of the federal poverty line — and parents need to be working a certain number of hours, or be enrolled in school. Families can get up to $700/month in support towards the $1,300 tuition, but the school is not permitted to collect more than that from a subsidized family, so financial aid makes up the difference. Borak told me that MCS RI is the only Montessori school in Rhode Island offering financial aid, and the school offers aid to 50% of its students this year.
Rhode Island has many old, well-established private schools with over one hundred years of history. I asked Borak what she thought of as her school’s distinction. She mentioned some common Montessori values: community, learning and the child’s pace, and a connection between the indoors and the outdoors. Bu the real distinction is her explicit mission of socio-economic diversity grounded in the community the school is in. She believes strongly in learning and sharing more about how a diverse community benefits everyone in it, and in giving all children an equal opportunity for development from the very start.
Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small (population 60,000) New England mill town which once produced 10% of the shoes in America, was hit hard by the Great Depression and reshaped by urban renewal in the 50s and 60s, but has had a bit of a renaissance since 2003. Still, there are plenty of takers for Marigold Montessori School, another small tuition-based program dedicated to serving local families who wouldn’t typically have access to Montessori. Marigold was launched in 2015 (as Urban Village Montessori) by veteran Massachusetts Montessorian and co-founder of nearby Hill View Montessori Charter Public School Janet Begin, with a view towards serving the substantial Haverhill population eligible for Massachusetts state education vouchers. In 2016, Urban Village joined the Wildflower network (profiled here) as one of the first Wildflower schools to focus on low-income families — a mission made explicit by Wildflower’s new leader, former Teach For America CEO Matt Kramer.
Begin joined the network because she saw a good match between her values and the Wildflower principles, and because of the opportunity to join a community of schools, where before her program had been somewhat isolated. Haverhill is about an hour north of Cambridge, so it is really a hub of its own, rather than part of the Cambridge hub, and as a low-income program sharing space in a church as part of a neighborhood partnership rather than an urban storefront, it doesn’t match the Wildflower model exactly. Still, Wildflower offers opportunities to network with other teacher-leaders, as well as some coaching, mentoring, and advice, moderate financial support, and some back-end logistical services such as bookkeeping.
Haverhill has revitalized in the last fifteen years, but the school is located in a high-crime, high-poverty pocket of town: 750 crimes annually per square mile, compared to an average of 40 for the region, and 60% to 70% of families at or below 50% of the state median income. Begin located the school here deliberately, believing strongly that effective early child education is a key intervention for ending generational cycles of crime and poverty. About half of Marigold’s families pay full tuition, and the rest are supported by Massachusetts child care vouchers, which cover about $700/month, and other financial aid. Many of these families need the 10 hours a day, year round care Marigold offers, at a rate of about $1,100/month, so the subsidy brings care at least within reach.
The Community Montessori School
Columbia, Missouri, population 120,000, halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis, is home to the University of Missouri as well as The Community Montessori School, another tuition-based, community-oriented program. With a median household income of about $44,000 and 25% of individuals below the poverty level, there are plenty of families even in this college town who can’t afford the $800-$900/month that local private Montessori pre-schools charge.
But that wasn’t on founder Myke Gemkow’s mind when he came to MU to study English and Education as an undergrad — high school social studies teacher was more the career plan, and driving a cab in Columbia’s lower-income neighborhoods was the day job.
After MU, Gemkow took a job teaching in the state prison. “It was supposed to be outreach,” Gemkow told me, “but three-fourths of these guys had kids on the outside. I didn’t really hear it right away, but eventually one of these guys told me, ‘Myke, it’s great to have you in here, but you really need to be out there teaching my kids. Go teach my kids, and keep them out of here.’”
From there Gemkow went on to a job at a residential boys’ home, working with “lots of boys probably on their way to prison.” Around that time, he stumbled onto Montessori when his daughter enrolled in Children’s House, housed on the MU campus, where Gemkow was back in school for a teaching license. Like a lot of people who discover Montessori by accident, he “was just picking up and dropping off, like everyone else, when I noticed, there’s something really special going on here.”
As a private school, though, it wasn’t accessible to everyone. Gemkow’s young family “lucked into” scholarship, but he could see how it would be cost prohibitive for most people. Over the next few years, as the school joined a partnership getting families from public housing access to high-quality preschool, he saw that initiative founder despite the best of intentions on all sides. There was a “clash of cultures” between the college town doctor-and-lawyer families and families from very different backgrounds, and the “scholarship” families found it hard to engage and feel ownership. When the parents felt left out, their children didn’t buy in either, and the partnership didn’t thrive. Gemkow began to ask himself, how could we take this Montessori model and put the school in the neighborhood where the children lived. Would there be a difference?
Gemkow started working at Children’s House as an assistant, took Montessori training at Hope Montessori Educational Institute in St. Louis, returned to the school as a guide, and started putting together a non-profit to open a school in Columbia’s high-poverty, mostly Black 1st Ward. He knew the neighborhood from his cabbie days, and remembered driving young (as in, 17 years old) mothers to the grocery store, seeing pictures of their children on the wall, and noticing tattoos of their children’s names on their arms. These were motivated, invested young mothers who wanted to do right for their children, but would likely never have access to Montessori or anything like it.
Gemkow started knocking on doors and raising money. Around this time he connected with another school parent: Community Montessori School founding board member (and now site director and lead teacher) Ellen Wilson. Wilson, a public school teacher for 13 years, with a two-year stint teaching remedial reading at the middle and high school levels, understood the impact this lack of access could have. “Teaching a thirteen-year-old to read is a whole different ball game”, she told me. “What if we could get them younger, when they’re more interested and maybe not so mad?” Together, they went door to door, visited churches, made neighborhood connections, getting people interested in the mission, and putting together the funding.
The Community Montessori School opened in 2009, renting a former crack house on Gemkow’s old taxi beat. From a handful of children and next to no money, the program has grown to serve 20 children in a beautiful building with plenty of outdoor space, on a city block owned by a board member. Funding is always a challenge, but, among other contributions, ongoing support from Heart of Missouri United Way supports five tuitions. Five more students pay full price, and the remaining ten are on a sliding scale, or state child care subsidy — or they pay nothing. The school won’t disenroll a family in poverty for inability to pay. “That won’t really help them get out of generational poverty, will it?” Gemkow asks.
I asked Wilson about plans for the future, and she emphasized the need to go slow and do things right. A capital campaign, a community block grant program a partnership with the district, expansion to elementary — all of these could be on the horizon. Gemkow is working on bringing in a mental health support component to provide trauma informed counselors and therapists for the program, noting that many of the school’s children have experienced violence, abuse, and neglect, and they need professional support beyond what Montessori training or well-intentioned grad school interns can provide.
The four schools profiled here are small, serving fewer than one hundred children among them. But their impact is huge — and there wasn’t nearly enough space to write about everything. (Myke Gemkow in particular didn’t wait around after The Community Montessori got started — in 2012, he started a public-private partnership with Columbia Public Schools to launch a sister school in the district called Grant Montessori Preschool, which deserves its own story.)
So think of them the next time you hear, “Oh, Montessori — that’s all fancy private schools, right?” Private schools are part of the story, and they have a part to play—all children deserve Montessori, and well-resourced programs can show the way and raise demand for more public schools. But Montessori as a movement keeps finding ways to stay true to its San Lorenzo origins, meeting its mission to serve all children.