Libertas surges to success in Memphis
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Community engagement plus great Montessori made the difference
By David Ayer
Under pandemic conditions of the last 18 months, schools and districts across the country have reported declines in academic achievement—the so-called “learning loss” that educators are sometimes reluctant to call out, but is nonetheless a real phenomenon, and an equity issue, that they must face. The Brookings Institution, the Center for Global Development, and McKinsey and Company have all called out the disparate impact of the last year-and-a-half.
But one school in a particularly under-resourced neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, has bucked that trend.
Tennessee tests its K-12 students every year with the TN Ready test, part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). State and district reports from the most recent round of testing showed scores declining across the state, worsening the opportunity gap for high-poverty communities.
Except at Libertas School of Memphis, where test results showed increasing proficiency in all subjects and grades and a Level 5—the highest academic growth designation. Libertas’ population is 95% African-American, so the size of the disparity across racial groups within the school isn’t relevant. But special education students (Libertas has the largest special education population in the district) again grew faster than their peers and now rank at the 86th percentile for the state. African-American students rank at the 52nd percentile, and the school overall, according to their email newsletter, has “soared” to the 25th percentile.
“Soared to 25th percentile,” you might ask? How is this headline news for the school? Well, it all depends on where you start from. When the former Brookmeade Elementary, now Libertas, closed six years ago, it was at 1%—99% of Tennessee schools were doing better. What did Libertas do, and how did they do it?
In 2010, Tennessee schools were in trouble and Obama-era education reform was in full swing. Inspired by the Recovery School District in post-Katrina New Orleans, the Tennessee Department of Education used a $500 million Race to the Top grant to establish an Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD was charged with taking over some of the state’s “Priority” schools—programs consistently scoring in the bottom 5%—and take them to the top 25% in five years, mostly by turning them over to charter school operators.
That goal might have been a little ambitious. The first six takeovers came in 2012, and by 2018, five of the six schools remained on the Priority list, one had closed, and 13 more ASD schools had been added. In 2021, just two ASD schools in Memphis (home to most of the program’s schools) came off the list. One was Libertas.
So something was different from the beginning at Libertas. Founder Bob Nardo has to be part of that story. Nardo came from the “no-excuses” charter school world, working for the Noble network and KIPP for six years before taking a position as Chief Operating Officer at the ASD. He worked there for two years, putting KIPP-style schools in some of the ASD’s target programs. Around that time he was also looking for a school for his own children. Nardo’s wife, a 19th century historian, put him onto Montessori and he realized, “I didn’t want to put my own children in the kinds of schools I worked in. So I had to really think about that.”
Nardo pitched the idea of a Montessori school to the ASD, and was approved for Brookmeade, a Priority school with declining enrollment in the economically distressed Frayser neighborhood of north Memphis. Montessori was a tough sell for the neighborhood, where Nardo encountered skepticism and hesitancy from the community, but a sustained campaign of engagement and collaboration with local leaders won at least some families over and Libertas School of Memphis opened its doors in 2015.
Year one was tough. The school was lucky to be able to hire experienced Montessori teachers from around the state, and launched an in-house teacher training program (partnering with NCMPS) to “grow their own.” And they were able to start small, with three-year-olds through first grade. Still, Nardo said, “there was no normalization.” Montessori was a whole new culture. “We just came into the classrooms, took out the old stuff, and put in Montessori materials.”
Nardo said two key strategies got them through in the beginning. First, “don’t respond to behavior—normalize through work.” That’s to say, just keep giving children the lessons and activities appropriate to their age and ability. Soon enough, they will get engaged in work that supports their development. Second, work to develop deep family and community engagement. Nardo uses an analogy to “attachment parenting”, describing an “attachment village” made up of “parents, teachers, and the community forming a village of love.” This trust building and communication stood in contrast to his no-excuses experience, where families were more often kept at arm’s length.
Like many states, Tennessee begins its higher-stakes testing 3rd grade, so Libertas had a two years to get a running start. Still, the ASD was under close scrutiny, and the first year Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) scores were “not amazing—OK, but not great,” Nardo said.
Year one was about building the “Village” and getting to work. Year two was about training teachers for high fidelity Montessori practice, and getting the academic alignment right. Libertas developed a detailed curriculum to standards alignment to help Montessori teachers present lessons with the appropriate standards and vocabulary in mind. The school also supplemented Montessori curriculum with material from Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), the popular but controversial curriculum published by the Core Knowledge Foundation. Nardo is a bit defensive about this, emphasizing his commitment to “high fidelity” Montessori and relying on CKLA for just 30-40 minutes/day, but it’s fair to say that this element distinguishes the program from “pure Montessori.”
But whatever the factors, Libertas’ approach seems to be working. Enrollment is up to nearly 500, the school serves children through 5th grade, and 150 children are on the waiting list to get in to what used to be the second worst school in the state. I asked Nardo what the takeaway was for public schools implementing Montessori.
“That’s a hard question,” he laughed. But two things came to mind—really the same two strategies that have guided the school from the beginning. First: Family and community engagement. “When we came here, no one knew what Montessori was and they weren’t asking for it.” Now, after five years of outreach and connection—”We went around the neighborhood, putting pink towers and golden beads in people’s hands, and talking with them about what was happening with their children”— they know it and they like it.
And second, “high fidelity Montessori implementation.” Does that mean AMI? AMS? Nardo is agnostic about any particular set of letters, although he speaks well of the school’s collaboration with NCMPS, and has partnered with the organization for a second teacher training using a residency model and recently accredited by the Tennessee Department of Education for state licensure. What Nardo wanted from teacher training was teachers who came away with a deep understanding of the why and the how of Montessori. Libertas has used that understanding as a foundation for a lot of KIPP-style “intentionality” about data, expectations, alignment, and outcomes. “But you can’t jump over that. The problem is, if you try to jump straight to test prep and you shortcut the Montessori preparation … you will not succeed.”