Public Montessori in the Centennial State
This article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
From Head Start to high school over 51 years
Public Montessori started in Colorado in 1968 at the Southern Ute Montessori Head Start in Ignacio which continues to serve children from birth to age 5. Unfortunately, the future of that program is now in doubt, as the Southern Ute tribe is reconsidering its support for the Head Start implementer. Still, 51 years later, Colorado is home to 29 public Montessori programs ranging from Infancy Head Start programs through high school.
While Southern Ute Montessori Head Start is Colorado’s first public program, the public Montessori movement in Colorado gained traction 18 years later with the opening of Mitchell Montessori in Denver Public Schools (DPS).
Magnet at Mitchell
The program began in 1986 during a nationally significant time for the Public Montessori movement. From 1975 to 1989, public magnet Montessori schools were opening across the country in response to a shifting focus on desegregation. In 1985, the U.S. District Court found Mitchell Elementary, a struggling, poorly resourced school in a low-income, high crime, mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Northeast Denver, out of compliance with a federal desegregation order, and ordered DPS to integrate the school. Dr. Martha Urioste, whose roles with DPS had included teacher, guidance counselor, Assistant Principal, had been Principal of Mitchell Elementary for just one year. At the time, Dr. Urioste was not yet familiar with Montessori but was encouraged by a friend to attend a Montessori lecture. She writes that she thought to herself, “If this Montessori lesson could give me such an experience in 20 minutes, what could it do for small Hispanic children in a Montessori classroom?” Dr. Urioste convinced DPS that a Montessori program at Mitchell would attract families from across the city, drawing white families and integrating the school.
In 1991, Dr. Urioste was also pivotal in the opening of Family Star Montessori, a Head Start program. Family Star opened in 1991 across the street from Mitchell Montessori in what had been a vacant rental unit turned drug house. Family Star sent five women from the neighborhood to take Assistants to Infancy training and the program was launched. In 1995, the program was one of just 17 nationally chosen to participate in Early Head Start. A second location was opened in 1997, and Primary was added in 2001. A second Primary was added in 2005, and the program now serves over 300 children and their families from birth to age five.
Too much desegregation?
The Montessori program at Mitchell was a resounding success, attracting white families from across town as well as middle-class black and Hispanic families from the neighborhood with tuition-free preschool for three-year-olds and door-to-door bussing. By 1995, Mitchell’s student body was 22 percent black, 38 percent white and 38 percent Hispanic, and the test scores (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) were the highest in Denver Public Schools. With integration seemingly achieved, the court order was lifted, DPS decided to return to neighborhood schools across the city, and in 1997 the Montessori program at Mitchell was moved to Denison Elementary School in more affluent Southwest Denver. This decision was controversial at the time and remains contentious. On the one hand, with bussing coming to an end, neighborhood children needed spaces in the school which were at the time being taken up with children from elsewhere, and neighborhood support for the school had never been as strong, or at least as vocal, as the support from the white and more affluent families. On the other hand, the move meant that the innovative Montessori model was being withdrawn from the local community. Mitchell struggled, declined, and closed in 2008.
Martha Urioste moved to Denison Montessori, retired from the school in 2003, and remains a tireless advocate for Montessori in the public sector. Denison continues to thrive as a public Montessori programs in DPS. Over the two decades since the move, six more DPS programs opened. One, Gilpin Montessori School, closed in 2017 due to low enrollment and declining test scores, but the rest remain in operation.
In 1993, the Colorado Charter School Act passed, and over the next two decades, charter Montessori schools began to spread in the state. In 1997, Montessori Peaks Academy in Littleton and Douglas County Montessori Charter School in Castle Pines opened. There are now 16 Montessori charter schools in Colorado.
Colorado saw its first charter Montessori adolescent program at Compass Montessori School in Golden in 2000. (There had been an earlier adolescent program in DPS at Hamilton Middle School, but it had closed.) In 2104, DPS opened another adolescent program at Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High. Together, Compass Montessori and DMHS operate a coffeeshop, Pinwheel Coffee, as an expression of Montessori adolescent pedagogy’s Occupations and Micro-Economy concepts—real, meaningful work that engages young adults in economic production and exchange. The students of Pinwheel describe their coffeeshop like this: “Pinwheel is a community that supports local businesses and provide high quality coffee to our community, while giving adolescents unique business experience and opportunities! We use the coffee shop as an extension of our school. We are learning math by understanding the accounting. The marketing is an exercise for our English and creative writing, and of course, we are getting real world on-the-job training learning to pour a perfect shot. As far as we know, this program is unique to Montessori schools.”
Today, Colorado is home to 29 public Montessori schools—16 charters and 13 operated by school districts. In addition, a number of Montessori organizations provide Montessori training and rich professional development and parent education opportunities.
National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) Denver Regional Montessori Hub
In 2018, National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) launched its Denver Regional Hub. Through this hub, NCMPS’s integrated, practice-based, and school-wide approaches to continuous improvement in public Montessori schools has been brought to Colorado. NCMPS supports schools in their work towards full implementation with coordinated services that blend targeted professional development with individual and collective reflection, problem-solving, and community building.
CMA was founded in 2012 by a group of educators who saw the need to ensure a robust and effective voice in Colorado for Montessori pedagogy. CMA offers professional development, monthly teacher mingles for socialization and support, and head of school networking opportunities. CMA is also active in state and national level advocacy. Through their advocacy, the Colorado Department of Human Services has agreed to grant all Montessori schools validated by CMA an Administrative Materials Waiver, which allows them to safely incorporate real-world materials which may include glass, small objects and even sharp tools such as sewing needles in early childhood classrooms.
Great Work Inc (GWI)
Great Work is a non-profit “committed to supporting the quality, stability and expansion of Montessori education through high fidelity teacher training and professional development, innovative programming with an emphasis on adolescent years, and the cultivation of tools, curriculum and resources that will better support educators and education institutions to serve the needs of students.” GWI helped develop Pinwheel Coffee, and offers MAPS (Montessori Adolescent Practitioners Symposium), Adolescent Intro Courses, Math Institute and Adolescent Orientations. Great Work Inc will also be offering an AMI Primary training starting this Fall.
Founded in 1978, MECR is an AMS Montessori Training Program for Infancy, Primary and Elementary. MECR also provides a variety of professional learning opportunities throughout the school year.
The Montessori Institute (TMI):
Founded in 1993, The Montessori Institute offers AMI Assistants to Infancy training. TMI also offers a variety of professional learning and parent education opportunities throughout the school year.
Founded in 2004, MCI offers MACTE accredited Primary Training. MCI also provides a series of seminars and workshops throughout the year.
- With integration seemingly achieved, the court order was lifted, and the Montessori program moved
Katy Mattis is the Director of Tools and Assets for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, and former Principal at Denison Montessori.