Bezos Academies are up and running
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Q & A with their Head of Education
by David Ayer
with Michael Abello
Three years ago, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos stunned the Montessori world with his announcement of a billion-dollar commitment to “launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.”
One program launched in the fall of 2020, in the teeth of the pandemic. Today, five sites are up and running, all in Washington state, serving 130 children, and there are more in the pipeline. Bezos Academies has partnered with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector to prepare this first cohort of teachers through the National Center Montessori Teacher Residency.
MontessoriPublic sat down with Bezos Academies’ Head of Education, Mike Abello, to find out how things are going.
MP: So your title is Head of Education—what does that mean?
MA: As the Head of Education, I lead our education team in developing a vision, goals, and strategy that delivers results for children and families across Bezos Academy. This work includes recruiting, hiring, and supporting a network of teachers and administrators within Bezos Academy.
MP: How do you see education—do you have what you would call a philosophy of education?
MA: The child is at the center of every decision we make. Each child’s culture, strengths, challenges, interests, and dreams inform our program design, instructional methods, and individual goals. Our child-centered approach meets children where they are and prioritizes all areas of their development. Bezos Academy creates a joyful and collaborative learning environment through hands-on experiences. Children develop a love of learning when it is child-directed and centered around their interests. When children find joy in learning, it deepens their natural curiosity and eagerness to discover.
The Bezos Academy Educa-tion Approach contains elements that guide how we make programmatic decisions for our network of academies, and within each school and classroom. These elements include:
- Child Centered
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
- Family and Community
- Effective School Leaders
- Responsive Educators
- Supportive Environment
- Learn, Invent, and Improve
MP: You were with Chicago Public Schools for 12 years, as a preschool teacher, a principal, and director of ECE. How do you feel about moving away from a district setting?
MA: I was excited about the challenge. I see this as a unique opportunity to build something from the ground up, while continuing to serve children and families in underserved communities.
MP: What did you consider in making the move?
MA: I considered my family. This was a family move and a decision we made together. I also considered the work and my position. I wanted to make sure there was mission alignment, and that Bezos Academy was somewhere where I could continue to have an impact on children and families in underserved communities. After meeting with Jeff Bezos and Mike George, the President at Bezos Academy, I knew that this was a special opportunity and one that I wanted to be a part of.
MP: Tell me what you’re excited about with the work you’re doing with Bezos.
MA: I am excited about all the work! Our mission statement is “All children deserve the great start that an excellent preschool provides. At Bezos Academy, we aim to nurture the potential in every child to become a creative leader, original thinker, and lifelong learner by increasing access to early childhood education in underserved communities.” Who wouldn’t be excited to bring that to life?
MP: Your programs are described as Montessori-Inspired, rather than Montessori. What’s Montessori, and what’s inspired?
MA: Our program is designed based on Montessori philosophy: differentiated, individualized, child-led learning, hands on materials, and teachers who guide students through the curriculum. Our classrooms are filled with a full complement of Montessori materials, and our teachers are receiving MACTE-accredited training. We chose the term “Montessori-inspired” instead of “Montessori” for two reasons. First, we want to clearly communicate that we are not following an AMI, AMS, or any one curriculum in its entirety. Instead, we are examining how we can apply Montessori principles with a lens of equity, incorporating knowledge from trauma-informed teaching, the science of reading, and Reggio Emilio, amongst other pedagogical elements.
We believe that the Montessori pedagogy should be dynamic, not static, and that Montessori’s exhortation to “follow the child” means that we should constantly be examining our practices and their effect on the children and families in our program. Second, Montessori schools, like all schools, have not always served Black and Brown children in an equitable manner. As such, we are eager to join the many public and private Montessori schools who are re-imagining their practices.
MP: You are funding Montessori training for your teachers. Tell us something about that investment.
MA: We have chosen to provide fully funded Montessori training to our teachers for a few reasons. First, the need for preschool teachers in the US outstrips the supply, and this imbalance is exacerbated when you look specifically at BIPOC teachers, and exacerbated further when you narrow to Montessori teachers. By training more teachers, we hope to make quality preschool experiences available to more children who need it. Second, though many organizations are crafting creative solutions to this issue, there are still barriers to accessing Montessori training for many adults who might want to participate. In light of this, existing trainees are largely white, cisgender, and female. By providing fully funded training, we hope to counter those inequities and train a more diverse teacher population.
MP: How are you choosing locations for your schools? What are you looking for?
MA: We start with a bird’s eye view of the need for affordable preschool in a given area. We use Census data (Title 1 data) and information from state child service agencies to identify communities that appear to have a significant gap between the raw number of low-income, preschool aged children living in an area and the number of ‘seats’ available in existing early learning programs. Then we begin reaching out to local civic, education and community leaders to better understand the community need and see if we can find a partner who is excited to host a school.
MP: Many communities and organizations, Montessori and other, are excited about Bezos Academy’s vision and would like to partner with you. How do you think about partnerships? What do you look for in partners?
MA: Strong, collaborative relationships with existing educational institutions, community-based organizations, and neighborhood and community leaders are essential to the fulfillment of Bezos Academy’s mission. We enter each community with the understanding that these organizations have been working to develop and care for children long before we arrived and already understand the needs and desires of the community. We hope to expand and diversify the existing child development and community resource ecosystem in communities with documented shortages in childcare offerings.
Our partners, whether a host site, service provider, or community member at-large, are our trusted advisors and help to ensure that our educational and child development offerings are holistic, reflecting and celebrating the unique assets, history and culture of our students and the communities that surround our schools. Bezos Academy aims to build long-term relationships with community-serving organizations so that we stand ready to provide service and resources linkages that fortify the families we serve, whether they be financial services, healthcare or adult learning. Interested organizations can express their interest at bezosacademy.org/host/ or reach out to our Family and Community Engagement Leader, Karen Young ([email protected]).