Adding Montessori primary to a District K-5
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Montessori ECE was a natural fit for a school in Denver
by David Ayer
Stedman Elementary a Denver Public Schools (DPS) K-5 school in the Park Hill neighborhood northeast of downtown, is adding a single Primary Montessori classroom this year. But like many public Montessori startups, there’s so much more to the story, including history going back more than a century, structural racism, a landmark Supreme Court case, and some remarkable individuals.
Stedman was built in 1923 and named for Dr. Arnold Stedman, a president of the Denver School Board, co-founder of the University of Denver Medical Department, and a Union soldier in the Civil War. Park Hill was at the time a newer, desirable Denver suburb, segregated for white residents by typical practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants.
The neighborhood began to integrate in the 1950s and 60s, although Black and Hispanic families were still relegated to certain streets and blocks through “blockbusting” and loan restrictions. Schools became “de facto” segregated, with school boundaries being redrawn to maintain separation, even if schools were not segregated “de jure”—by law. As the slow-moving effects of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision finally began to ripple into northern cities, tensions around visibly unequal schools mounted and pressures to desegregate increased. Park Hill became the center of these tensions and pressures.
In 1965, Black educator, civil rights leader, and Park Hill resident Rachel B. Noel joined the Denver School Board—the first Black woman elected to public office in Colorado. In 1968 she co-authored what became known as the “Noel Resolution,” a plan for integrating Denver schools with a variety of measures including busing, but many of the plan’s proposals were voted down after the next School Board election. Eight Denver families sued the district and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court in 1973 as Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver. The Court’s decision essentially extended busing as a desegregation measure to the entire district, reasoning that the “de facto” segregation in Park Hill was enough to demonstrate that the entire district was segregated.
The impact of Keyes has been mixed and controversial over the years. Even if desegregated, schools continued to offer Black and Hispanic families unequal opportunities and to produce unequal outcomes. In 1995, with schools significantly more integrated than in 1960, the problem was declared solved and busing was ended. In 2012, Denver and New Orleans became the only two large school districts to move to an “all-choice” model, allowing (in principle) any student to apply for a space at any school in the system. This, too, has had mixed effects, as “de facto” residential segregation and other factors continue to limit the opportunities for Black and Hispanic families. Stedman today serves about one-third each Black, Hispanic, and white families in a neighborhood that is about 40% Black, 25% Latino, and 25% white (Census categories overlap so percentages don’t add up to 100).
I spoke to Emily Madison, Dean of Instruction at Stedman, about the new Montessori program. Madison, as it turns out, was a Montessori child who became a conventional teacher. During her student teaching in Montana, she told me, she “kept sneaking over to peek in the Montessori classrooms” and considered taking Montessori training herself, but ended up staying in conventional schools, coming to Stedman eight years ago. With the arrival of her son, her interest in Montessori was rekindled, and she earned a Montessori administration certification at the Montessori Education Center of the Rockies in Denver. About three years ago, she began talking to her Principal, Michael Atkins, about the possibility of starting a Primary at Stedman.
Atkins, a Black man, has an origin story tied up with this as well. He grew up in Park Hill and experienced busing and unequal opportunity first hand. In middle school (as he recounted to 9News, a Denver television station, in 2019) “I had the social intelligence at that time to understand there were differences.” He took his first full time job with DPS as a janitor at—too good to be true, but it is—Rachel B. Noel Middle School. From there he worked up to teacher, Assistant Principal, and now Principal at Stedman. Madison found him amenable to the idea of Montessori, especially for its potential to support Black and brown children.
About the program, Atkins said, “We have a unique lens of education at its most vulnerable state. And through this lens, we have a clear depiction of all the inequities within the system. As a result, we now have an opportunity to re-create a system that will illuminate the cultural gifts of all students while simultaneously creating spaces our babies can be seen, heard, and understood. We must re-build for ALL and not just SOME.”
DPS offers early childhood education throughout its system—Stedman itself has a Spanish-immersion PreK program beginning at four years old. There aren’t a lot of programs for three-year-olds, especially full day options, though, and Stedman’s plan for a full-day, full age range Montessori primary “helped with negotiations” Madison said, freeing up money to fully equip the classroom. It also met a community need for full-day young child care, another feature of the program’s success. And the last piece of the puzzle was the involvement of a relative rarity in the Montessori world, and in early childhood education generally: a Black, male Montessori early childhood teacher.
Tatenda Blessing Muchiriri was born in Zimbabwe and discovered Montessori while working on films in China. He came to the U.S. in 2015, took Infant/Toddler training at MECR, and worked at Mountain Shadows Montessori School before becoming an AMS Emerging Leaders fellow and returning to MECR for his Primary credential. Muchiriri was in conversation with Atkins and Hutton for several years, and felt aligned with Atkins’ mission to improve educational opportunities for children of color in Denver. When the possibility of a Montessori class at Stedman started to become a reality, it was a perfect match. Muchiriri is currently enrolled in an alternative certification program for his Colorado teaching license to add to his already impressive list of qualifications.
What does the future hold for Stedman and Montessori ECE in Denver? If there is to be a second primary program, it might be as Spanish immersion track, in alignment with their existing Spanish immersion program which begins at age four. Hutton emphasized the importance of designing programs that meet the needs of the school community. Stedman needed full-day early childhood education beginning at age three, and finding the rare Black preschool teacher was a win for the school population. Spanish immersion would be attractive to this highly diverse school as well. Elementary might not be a priority for a school where families are happy with what they have now. But if Stedman can show a pathway for more Montessori Primary in DPS—already home to six other programs, at Academia Ana Maria Sandoval, Denison Montessori School, Escuela Valdez, Garden Place Academy, and Lincoln Montessori School, Monarch Montessori—that would be a big win for the children of Denver.